The U.S. Federal Communications Commission should reverse course and keep the net neutrality rules it passed just two years ago, several Democratic senators said Wednesday.
The FCC has not yet moved to repeal the regulations prohibiting broadband providers from selectively blocking or slowing web traffic, but the agency's new chairman, Republican Ajit Pai, has called those rules a "mistake."
Broadband customers, however, still need the protections of the net neutrality rules, several Democratic members of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee said during a hearing.
Since President Donald Trump appointed him chairman in late January, Pai has moved to roll back transparency provisions in the net neutrality rules, suspended some ISP privacy regulations, and removed some companies from the Lifeline broadband subsidy program for low-income people, noted Senator Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat.
"These are actions that directly impact the lives of millions of Americans and I sincerely hope they are not a sign of things to come," Nelson said to Pai. "Because, at the end of the day, the FCC has a responsibility to put the public interest ahead of powerful special interests."
Many lawmakers expect the FCC to uphold the laws they have passed and "enforce the regulations properly adopted by the agency," Nelson added.
Concerns that the net neutrality rules would hurt the broadband market seem to be unfounded, added Senator Cory Booker, a New Jersey Democrat. "A lot of gloom and doom was predicted if this was to happen, but clearly, the sky's not fallen," he said. "Businesses have continued to innovate in this space."
Pai largely avoiding talking about his net neutrality plans during the hearing, and Republican senators avoided asking him about it. He laid out other priorities for the commission, including broadband deployment to underserved areas and consumer protection from robocalls.
Fellow Republican Commissioner Michael O'Rielly also called on the FCC to end the "scourge" of pirate radio, saying unauthorized radio signals cause interference with other stations.
But Mignon Clyburn, the commission's lone Democrat at the moment, called on the FCC to keep net neutrality rules and take other actions that put "consumers first."
"Will there be a cop on the beat in a broadband world?" she asked. "If not the FCC, who will consumers turn to when their broadband provider throttles their favorite website? And what if there is a billing dispute? Poor service? Privacy concerns?"
The agency's rollback of its privacy rules last week, along with a Senate resolution to remove the rest of the net neutrality-related privacy rules are the "opening salvo" in a fight to remove the entire suite of net neutrality regulations, said Senator Ed Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat.
Democratic FCC members argued for the privacy rules after they reclassified broadband as a regulated common carrier as part of the net neutrality rules. That reclassification took privacy enforcement authority for broadband away from the FCC's sister agency, the Federal Trade Commission.
"I fear [the privacy rollback] is just a preview of coming attractions," Markey said. "Big broadband companies don't want to give consumer privacy protections the attention they deserve."