Vermonters react to FCC’s repeal of internet neutrality

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Federal Communications Commission repealed Obama-era internet neutrality regulations on a party-line vote Thursday.
In the hours after the decision, many Vermont officials came out strongly against the move.
All three members of Vermont’s congressional delegation signed on to legislation that would restore the regulations. Meanwhile, top Vermont officials weighed options that could be taken at a state level.
FCC Chair Ajit Pai, who proposed the rule change, said at the public meeting Thursday that the policy would restore the “light touch regulation” approach to the internet that was in place before the net neutrality rules were adopted in 2015.
The FCC decision drew praise from many Republicans in Congress and from the White House. However, public officials across the political spectrum in Vermont condemned the vote.
The process the FCC used in pursuing the regulatory change was heavily criticized in recent weeks as it emerged that millions of public comments to the FCC had been submitted under false identities via its website.
One of those fake comments, in favor of Pai’s proposal, was submitted under Sen. Patrick Leahy’s name, Seven Days reported last week.
“Even with an Irish-Italian background, I’m usually able to keep my temper,” Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, said in an interview last week. “This one I blew my stack.”
Leahy is a longtime supporter of net neutrality and held a hearing on the issue in Vermont in 2014 when he led the Senate Judiciary Committee. He said he worries about the impact of the policy shift on small businesses.
“How many small businesses in Vermont today, mail order businesses, agriculture businesses, others, are going to survive — small inns, B&B’s — without this?” he said.
The commission’s decision “took a wrecking ball to the pillars of freedom and openness upon which the internet was built,” he said in a statement after the vote.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., characterized the FCC’s decision as “an egregious attack on our democracy.”
“The end of net neutrality protections means that the internet will be for sale to the highest bidder, instead of everyone having the same access regardless of whether they are rich or poor, a big corporation or small business, a multimedia conglomerate or a small online publication,” Sanders said.
Sanders and Leahy are backing a binding resolution that would rescind the FCC decision.
Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., also announced after the vote that he would co-sponsor legislation to reverse the commission’s decision. The repeal of the regulations, he said, is “an early Christmas present to big broadband companies.”
Vermont Attorney General TJ Donovan on Wednesday urged the commission to delay the vote, in part to allow time to deal with the false comments.
After the FCC vote, Donovan said he was weighing the options available to the state.
New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman announced after the vote that he would lead a multistate lawsuit to halt the FCC decision. Donovan had not made any decisions about joining that lawsuit or taking other action.
Donovan said he is very concerned about the implications of the decision for economic development in Vermont.
“We need net neutrality. This is a core issue,” he said. “I think it goes to the vibrancy of our state.”
Rebecca Kelley, a spokesperson for Gov. Phil Scott, said the administration was disappointed by the decision.
She said the FCC decision limits the actions states can take but that the administration is considering multiple options, including bringing a legal challenge.
Meanwhile, Vermont-based internet service providers, or ISPs, took different approaches on the issue.
Michel Guite, CEO of Vermont Telephone Co., said he sees a need for mechanisms to manage traffic on internet networks.
Streaming movies, for instance, takes up a lot of bandwidth. When accessed through fiber networks, that level of data is not problematic. But it can be a significant drain on wireless networks.
At the moment, if just a dozen people stream movies within range of a single wireless site, it can slow that whole system down, he said.
“There needs to be some category of highway management,” Guite said.
Guite believes the change in regulation could encourage companies like Netflix or Hulu to find ways to avoid overwhelming the infrastructure, particularly as there is a shift to more wireless internet service.
“In every marketplace there needs to be a mechanism to urge all parties to be somewhat efficient,” he said.
Guite said VTel would not manipulate internet users’ access to different services.
“We’re not thinking of it,” he said. “We don’t have any plans to do it.”
He also said major national companies would likely not be interested in entering into agreements with an internet provider the size of VTel.
“Nobody would bother with us, or would bother agreeing, because the amount of traffic we carry is so small,” he said.
Another internet service provider, Burlington Telecom, has been a proponent of the Obama-era net neutrality rules. The company vowed in a statement Wednesday that it would not block users’ access to content.
The company is being sold to Schurz Communications Inc., which has promised to continue practicing net neutrality.
Many Vermont businesses have been outspoken opponents of rolling back the Obama-era rules.
Three prominent businesses in the state — King Arthur Flour, Cabot Creamery, and Ben and Jerry’s — joined a group of New England companies saying that repealing the rules would “compound the challenges” facing businesses in rural areas, which already struggle to access internet service.
The regulations aimed to ensure equal access to the internet for all users. Proponents of the net neutrality rules fear that repealing them will lead to internet service providers’ charging tolls for access to some services and slowing down service to small businesses and news organizations.
In remarks to the commission, Pai dismissed the “apocalyptic rhetoric” of those opposed to his proposal.
“It is not going to end the internet as we know it. It is not going to kill democracy. It is not going to stifle free expression online,” Pai said.
He asserts that the changes will increase competition within the market and encourage broadband providers to expand infrastructure in underserved areas.
“In short, it’s a freer and more open internet,” Pai said.
The commission voted 3-2 to nix the Obama-era rules.
As the commission convened, more than 100 people rallied in a small square next to FCC headquarters. Protesters carried colorful banners and chanted. One sign, in simple black marker writing, read: “Ajit Pai doesn’t want you to meet your fiancé online.”
A memorial-like arrangement of flowers and candles stretched several feet along the sidewalk outside the entrance, with papers reading “#RIPinternet.”
Critics of the rule change say the repeal will allow large internet providers to limit users’ access to online services.
Sarah Gardam, a former educator, traveled to Washington from Philadelphia for the rally.
“I know for a fact that a lot of my students are learning a lot about social justice from the internet,” she said.
She said the web is a key tool for young people interested in engaging on issues including climate change and sexual violence.
“Access to the internet is perhaps the only way for people to organize in the contemporary moment,” Gardam said.

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