Return of net neutrality will hamstring some foreign broadband firms, FCC official says

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The reclassification of broadband as a Title II service will give the Federal Communications Commission new power over internet service providers, and the agency says it will be a boon to U.S. network security.

The Federal Communications Commission is poised to restore Obama-era net neutrality policies that prohibit internet service providers from throttling speeds to accelerate or degrade the delivery of online content. The rules were jettisoned by the FCC during the Trump administration.

The reclassification of broadband as a regulated service will help hamstring certain foreign-owned ISPs, according to a senior FCC official who briefed reporters on a Wednesday press call. Several providers deemed national security risks will have to discontinue business dealings in the U.S. once the new rules have been in effect for 60 days, the official said. 

The official did not elaborate on the specific affiliations of the companies but said the reclassification will immediately have an effect on Chinese firms the agency has already stripped telecom operating authority from and will preclude them from providing broadband and other FCC-regulated services.

In reclassifying broadband communications as a Title II service, the FCC would assume broad powers to regulate internet service as a utility. Supporters of net neutrality have historically argued that the rule is a check on ISPs who might otherwise throttle content or prioritize certain traffic in exchange for user or content-provider payments. Now, advocates for treating broadband as a utility are saying that the move would supply the FCC with needed authority to tackle providers deemed a risk to national security. 

Some opponents of net neutrality counter that the agency has already taken sweeping steps to jettison foreign adversaries from U.S. networks under existing authorities. 

The agency over the past several years has been working with national security partners to shield networks from certain communications operators, arguing they might facilitate cyber espionage, launch cyberattacks against critical infrastructure or engage in other malicious activities. It maintains a “covered list” of entities that are deemed an “unacceptable risk” to national security.

Restoring net neutrality has been one of the main broadband policy missions of the Biden administration, with a focus on making the U.S. internet landscape fairer and more accessible. The agency has been unable to tee up the vote because of a deadlocked commission lineup that only changed in September

Republicans and Democrats on the FCC have long-held differences over the policy. Republicans have argued that rules meant to govern voice telephone service don’t apply to the broadband ecosystem. Democrats want to prevent ISPs from having excessive control over the content that streams on their networks.

The “hysterical predictions of doom didn’t come to pass” since the repeal of net neutrality in 2017, said Evan Swarztrauber, a former advisor to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, who led the agency when the classification was stripped. “So the FCC is now rebranding net neutrality as key to national security — a cynical attempt to justify what cannot be justified based on the facts.” 

The FCC argues that, since the COVID pandemic, internet accessibility needs have changed, and the new landscape has given cybercriminals and nation-state hackers opportunities to breach sensitive networks and steal users’ data.

“The pandemic proved once and for all that broadband is essential,” said agency Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel in a statement. “After the prior administration abdicated authority over broadband services, the FCC has been handcuffed from acting to fully secure broadband networks, protect consumer data, and ensure the internet remains fast, open, and fair.”