Biden Signs Executive Order to Restore Network Neutrality

Network neutrality might be one step closer to making a comeback. This after an executive order signed by US President, Joe Biden.

It’s hard to believe that the killing of network neutrality happened clear back in 2017, but it was, indeed, the whole tech world stood still. Then FCC (Federal Communications Commission) chairman, Ajit Pai, at the behest of impeached former US president, Donald Trump, killed network neutrality in a strict party line vote. The move stunned experts and observers along with the American people who went on to demand Pai’s resignation. Of course, it wasn’t just those in the US stunned by the move. In fact, the move sent shockwaves around the world as well. How could the US do something so absolutely insane? Well, with Trump in power, insanity was the new normal.

Efforts to mitigate the damage caused by this ruling were quickly underway right after. States began implementing their own network neutrality rules before the big ISPs could start tilting the Internet into their favour. California, of course, was at the epicentre of this fight. Republican’s, of course, were furious that states would have the audacity to exercise state rights and were very vocal in their opposition to these moves. California, of course, didn’t budge and the case went straight to the courts. After years of litigation, the ISPs ultimately lost their bid to skirt network neutrality rules. Essentially, ISPs can’t skirt the rules while the case proceeds.

Of course, by the time that ruling came down, Trump was fired and Joe Biden had already won the election and was sworn in. The signals of where he was going to take things on this debate especially after the appointment of Jessica Rosenworcel to the FCC.

Unfortunately, the mess left behind by Trump was so great, few really believed that Biden would actually have the capabilities of fixing it all. Instead, the election was more about the restoration of sanity and mitigating further damage caused on the country. Between COVID-19 claiming over 100,000 American lives, the damaged international relationships like the relationships in NATO, and the economy being in shambles, Democrats were effectively left on cleanup duty, trying to put out as many fires as possible (with COVID-19 being the biggest fire to put out). It might be partly why movement on this file has been so slow. After all, it is challenging to care about digital rights when people in real life are dying by the thousands every day from a disease sweeping the country. A bit more of an immediate problem, really.

Still, just because the issue was left on the sidelines doesn’t mean it was forgotten entirely. Recently, Joe Biden signed an executive order ordering the FCC to restore network neutrality. From the Verge:

Earlier today President Biden signed the Executive Order on Promoting Competition in the American Economy, and in it there were several provisions relating to net neutrality. The prior administration’s FCC and FTC rolled back Obama-era rules in those areas, and now there is a clear agenda to restore them.
Directives for the FCC from the order:

(i) adopting through appropriate rulemaking “Net Neutrality” rules similar to those previously adopted under title II of the Communications Act of 1934 (Public Law 73-416, 48 Stat. 1064, 47 U.S.C. 151 et seq.), as amended by the Telecommunications Act of 1996, in “Protecting and Promoting the Open Internet,” 80 Fed. Reg. 19738 (Apr. 13, 2015);

(iv) prohibiting unjust or unreasonable early termination fees for end-user communications contracts, enabling consumers to more easily switch providers;

(v) initiating a rulemaking that requires broadband service providers to display a broadband consumer label, such as that as described in the Public Notice of the Commission issued on April 4, 2016 (DA 16–357), so as to give consumers clear, concise, and accurate information regarding provider prices and fees, performance, and network practices;

(vi) initiating a rulemaking to require broadband service providers to regularly report broadband price and subscription rates to the Federal Communications Commission for the purpose of disseminating that information to the public in a useful manner, to improve price transparency and market functioning; and

(vii) initiating a rulemaking to prevent landlords and cable and Internet service providers from inhibiting tenants’ choices among providers.

The FCC is now tasked with reviving the “Broadband Nutrition Label” that was in development in 2016. The label would provide a standardized format for providers to display their price, data allowances and details on performance, similar to the labels you currently see on food at the grocery store.

So, with Rosenworcel as FCC chairwoman and an executive order, things appear to be moving forward. The problem is that there is a hiccup in all of this. Biden still has to nominate another commissioner. Otherwise, the vote remains 2-2. From Toolbox:

The White House has asked the Federal Communications Commission to restore the Obama-era net neutrality rules along with a few new regulations such as broadband nutrition labels and more. However, the directive means little unless the president exercises his powers to appoint a fourth FCC commissioner to break the 2-2 vote deadlock between Democrats and Republicans.

But before the FCC proceeds with implementing the proposed rules, the independent federal body will have to vote on Biden’s order. Currently, FCC has three sitting commissioners (two Republicans and one Democrat) along with democrat Rosenworcel as the acting chairwoman and is tied 2-2. So Biden needs to appoint another commissioner to break the deadlock and to actually get things moving for the net neutrality regulations.

So, there isn’t necessarily a clear path towards the restoration of the rules yet. Still, it’s a step in the right direction for the US to re-join the rest of the world on this front. After all, network neutrality is a critical pillar in a free and open Internet. It enables an Internet to not be dictated by the whims of large ISPs that control what many argue is monopolistic control over access. Allowing ISPs to also influence what you see on the Internet on top of it all is a clear no-go zone for most digital rights advocates. Many first world countries agree with this perspective and its why they implemented such rules in some form or another. Hopefully, this is another sign of the end of this dark chapter in digital rights in the US.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.

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