The Federal Communications Commission has unveiled a sweeping plan that essentially dismantles every aspect of the net neutrality rules put in place during the Obama administration.

If the plan is approved at the FCC's open meeting in mid-December, as expected, internet service providers (ISPs)—companies such as AT&T, Comcast, and Verizon that provide your broadband service—will be allowed to slow down and possibly block some websites and online services, and charge companies more for "fast lanes" that provide speedier service.

The Obama-era FCC banned these practices, putting in place "bright line" rules to codify neutrality, or the principle that all internet traffic to consumers should be treated equally.

In a statement issued yesterday FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, the new plan's chief architect, argued that the net neutrality rules had hindered investment and deterred innovation.

"Under my proposal, the federal government will stop micromanaging the internet," he said. "Instead, the FCC would simply require internet service providers to be transparent about their practices so that consumers can buy the service plan that's best for them and entrepreneurs and other small businesses can have the technical information they need to innovate."

Consumers Union, the policy and mobilization division of Consumer Reports and an outspoken advocate for net neutrality, opposes the plan.

“If the FCC approves this proposal, it would be an enormous loss for consumers,” says Jonathan Schwantes, senior policy counsel for Consumers Union. “Repealing the net neutrality rules would give internet service providers more power and control over the websites we can visit, and it would make it harder for small businesses and innovators to compete online. This move would likely lead to consumers paying higher prices for the internet access and speeds they have today.”

The new plan is expected to be approved by the FCC along party lines, with the three Republican commissioners in favor and the two Democratic commissioners opposed. In a published statement, Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democrat, called Pai's plan "ridiculous and offensive to the millions of Americans who use the Internet every day." 

Citing past precedent, she's calling for public hearings before any change is made to the rules. The plan, she says, "throttles access, stalls opportunity, and censors content. It would be a big blunder for a slim majority of the FCC to approve these rules and saddle every Internet user with the cruel consequences."

What the Plan Does

A major element of the new plan takes away the FCC's power to regulate how ISPs handle internet traffic.

Some relevant history: The FCC initially approved net neutrality rules in 2010. Verizon sued the following year, and a federal appeals court found in 2014 that the FCC didn't have the authority to enforce net neutrality. In response, the regulatory agency assumed that authority in 2015 by reclassifying ISPs as Title II "common carrier" services under the Communications Act.

That basically put ISPs in the same category as phone companies and gave the FCC much stronger authority to regulate them. Pai, a Republican commissioner during the Obama-era FCC, voted against the reclassification at the time.

Under his new proposal, ISPs will revert to their previous status as Title I information services, which includes things such as email and news aggregation providers, and the FCC will no longer have much authority to regulate them. 

The new plan then repeals the bright-line rules that prohibit ISPs from blocking or slowing down certain websites or services. It will also allow "paid prioritization" deals that would create internet "fast lanes" for those companies willing and able to pay for them.

In addition, the FCC will eliminate the "Internet conduct standard," which was enacted under the prior FCC to review possible violations of open internet principles not explicitly covered under the open internet rules.

One critical element of the plan is that it would bar state and local governments from enacting any net neutrality laws or rules on their own. States have shown some interest in replacing FCC regulations that are rolled back: Legislators in California and elsewhere considered passing laws on ISP privacy practices this year, after FCC privacy rules were killed.

A Mixed Reception

The proposed changes are being met with a mixed reaction, with ISPs and Republicans applauding the move, and consumer groups and large internet companies decrying the measure.

Public Knowledge, a consumer advocacy group, says the plan will leave a large swath of Americans—everyone from consumers and low-income families to small businesses and startups—unprotected.

"Chairman Pai’s radical ‘Carriers First, Consumers Last’ approach puts broadband subscribers at the mercy of local cable companies whose ‘innovations’ have more to do with gouging consumers and crushing competition than with providing new services,” Harold Feld, senior vice president at Public Knowledge, said in a statement emailed to CR. 

But it's not only consumer groups that are opposed to the new FCC plan. Michael Beckerman, president of the Internet Association, a lobbying group that counts many large internet companies, including Amazon, Facebook, and Google, as members, called the proposal "the end of net neutrality as we know it," adding that  "defies the will of millions of Americans who support the 2015 Open Internet Order."

Proponents of Pai's plan say that deregulation is needed to encourage innovation and investment in the broadband industry. "The removal of antiquated, restrictive regulations will pave the way for broadband network investment, expansion and upgrades, says Jonathan Spalter, CEO of USTelecom, an industry lobbying group.

The American Cable Association, which represents smaller and medium-sized cable and telco companies, also supports the regulatory roll-back. Matthew M. Polka, president and CEO of the group, says the plan removes "the dark cloud of Title II regulation that has hung over the industry and deterred investment" by ISPs all over the country.

And broadband providers argue that the changes won't actually put an end to net neutrality protections. “Net neutrality isn’t dying, it’s just going to be protected differently," said Berin Szóka, president of TechFreedom, a think tank that opposes the Obama-era FCC rules.

In an interview with Consumer Reports, Szóka said that while the FCC is relinquishing its regulatory authority, the responsibility for policing net neutrality will fall to the Federal Trade Commission, Department of Justice, and state attorneys general on a case-by-case basis. “Nothing will change except the most important thing: the FCC will no longer be claiming broad power to regulate Internet services."

The FTC does not have the authority to create net neutrality rules. However, it can impose penalties on ISPs for fraudulent activity. If an ISP were, for instance, to enter a deal to prioritize some streaming services over others, they'd need to reveal that to consumers. Otherwise, the Federal Trade Commission, an enforcement agency, could launch an investigation.

The FTC might also choose to investigate specific instances of anti-competitive behavior.

So What's Next?

Consumer advocacy groups say they plan to spend the next couple of weeks convincing legislators to put pressure on the FCC to postpone the upcoming vote on the proposal.

If the plan is adopted by the FCC commissioners, consumer advocates say it will face legal challenges.

But in a debate where there's been little consensus, there does seem to be some agreement about the best option for finally settling net neutrality protections: legislation. Even fans of Pai's proposed changes acknowledge that they too could be reversed under a future administration.

That's the position taken by the Internet & Television Association—a cable trade association formerly known as the NCTA—that opposed the Title II reclassification of broadband. "Only Congress has the power to conclusively settle this debate and provide the FCC with clear authority to enforce open internet principles," the group said in a published statement.

For now, though, no such legislation is moving through Congress. And everyone, on both sides of the debate, is keeping their eyes on the Dec. 14 vote.