The Federal Communication Commission's vote on the future of the internet came down, as with so much else in American public life these days, to politics. The agency's two Republican commissioners, joined by FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, voted to eliminate the "net neutrality" rules, while the panel's two Democrats opposed their repeal.
One of those dissenting voices, Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, had before Thursday's vote starkly framed net neutrality as "the ability of consumers and businesses to reach the online applications and services of their choosing without interference from their broadband provider."
The problem, in Clyburn's view, is that broadband giants such as AT&T (T), Comcast (CMCSA) and Verizon (VZ) can't be trusted to act as impartial gatekeepers to the online world. In support of her position, has cited examples of internet service providers acting in ways she considers unfair in their treatment of content and that are harmful to consumers.
Just ahead of today's vote, Clyburn echoed those concerns. "What saddens me the most today is that the agency that is supposed to protect you is actually abandoning you," she said.
"[B]roadband providers did not even wait for the ink to dry on this order before making their moves," Clyburn said in her dissenting opinion. "One broadband provider, who had in the past promised to not engage in paid prioritization, has now quietly dropped that promise from its list of commitments on its website. What's next? Blocking or throttling?"
"After today's vote, exactly who is the cop of the beat that can or will stop them?" she added.
Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, the FCC's other Democratic appointee, said in her dissent that the public comment process for the FCC's plan to nix net neutrality was seriously flawed.
There were no public hearings before the FCC's Thursday vote, a fact that Pai dismissed as incidental given citizens' ability to submit comments for the record electronically or in other ways. A record 24 million comments were submitted to the commission -- but at least 2 million of them are allegedly, using stolen identities. Nineteen state prosecutors asked the commission to delay its vote until an investigation could take place, which it did not do.
"I think our record has been corrupted and our process for public participation lacks integrity," Rosenworcel said. "Identity theft is a crime under state and federal law -- and while it is taking place this agency has turned a blind eye to its victims and callously told our fellow law enforcement officials it will not help. This is not acceptable. It is a stain on the FCC and this proceeding. This issue is not going away. It needs to be addressed."
To be sure, there will still be a regulator on the beat: Part of the re-classification of internet services would return oversight of internet providers to the Federal Trade Commission, which has a mandate to go after harmful or unfair business practices. But the FTC is ill-equipped to handle consumer complaints about the internet, Clyburn and Rosenworcel said, because it can only address consumer harm after it has occurred.
"By the time the FTC gets around to addressing them in court proceedings or enforcement actions, it's fair to assume that the startups and small entities wrestling with discriminatory treatment could be long gone," Rosenworcel said.