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Net Neutrality: US prepares for return of Obama-era internet regulation

FCC set to prohibit service providers from "blocking, throttling, or engaging in paid prioritisation of lawful content" from July 22nd

The regulatory landscape is set for a major rehaul in the US next month as the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) reintroduces net neutrality laws.

On July 22nd, a new rule will come into force enabling the FCC to regain oversight over broadband internet, classifying it as a telecoms carrier service. Net neutrality has been a contentious issue in the country, with several governmental flip-flops on what constitutes the "open internet".

Largely, this issue has to do with how Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are classified under American telecoms law.

While the Obama administration classified ISPs as Title II common carrier services, giving the FCC significant oversight over them, the Trump administration moved to have ISPs classified as Title I information services.

See also: Net neutrality back on the cards for FCC

Under the Title I classification, broadband internet saw little supervision. The Trump-governed FCC had made arguments that net neutrality regulation would limit network investment and get in the way of innovation. However, the Biden administration that was elected in 2021 had stated that reversing the net neutrality policy was a priority.

"Restoring the 2015 net neutrality rules will drive innovation, economic growth and the free exchange of ideas by ensuring the Internet remains open, secure and accessible to all," the National Telecommunications and Information Administration said in a statement released earlier this year.

Under the revised legislation, regulatory control will be reimposed over ISPs in America. In practice, this means that the FCC will ensure that internet traffic is equalised. For service providers, this will be a prohibition on slowing down, throttling or prioritising traffic to certain websites. It will also give the FCC the ability to monitor internet outages.

"Net neutrality rules protect internet openness by prohibiting broadband providers from playing favourites with internet traffic. We need broadband to reach 100% of us – and we need it fast, open, and fair,” stated Jessica Rosenworcel, Chairperson of the FCC, in April 2024.

Under the new rules ISPs will also be prevented from selling or sharing their subscribers' personal data. This is likely a move to prevent companies training AI models on consumer data without consent.

Think tanks such as the Brookings Institute have since argued that net neutrality laws are necessary for the global development of AI tech.

"The development of AI is a global effort, requiring collaboration across borders. Net neutrality facilitates this by ensuring that data can flow freely and without discrimination. This is crucial for sharing AI research, accessing computational resources, and deploying solutions worldwide,” said the DC based organisation in response to recent FCC decisions.

Along with ensuring net neutrality, the FCC has also invoked its established oversight powers to stop Chinese telecom providers from operating in the US. The FCC has ordered China Telecom , China Unicom and China Mobile to discontinue broadband services in the US.

The reinstating of net neutrality laws has not gone down well with American telecom providers. Industry groups including USTelecom, NCTA, CTIA and ACA Connects have filed a petition asking the FCC to halt the implementation of new rules.

In a comment to Reuters, the groups said that the FCC "has once again claimed all-encompassing authority to regulate how Americans access the internet – this time, adopting even more invasive rules than it did in 2015."

The groups have also filed legal challenges against the net neutrality laws, hoping for a judicial review of the legislation. The telecom companies have the support of Republican Senators, who have termed the oversight as "heavy-handed."

The US Chamber of Commerce has also criticised the regulations, stating that the FCC was "imposing a flawed, pre-television era regulatory structure on broadband."

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