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Net neutrality hits a nerve in US

International New York Times, Nov 30 2017, 0:51 IST

It usually doesn't take much to get people on the internet worked up. To get them really worked up, make the topic internet regulation.

In the week since the Federal Communications Commission released a plan to scrap existing rules for internet delivery, more than 2,00,000 phone calls, organised through online campaigns, have been placed to Congress in protest. An additional 5,00,000 comments have been left on the agency's website. On social media sites like Twitter and Reddit, the issue has been a leading topic of discussion.

In some cases, views on the sweeping change, which would repeal landmark regulations meant to ensure an open internet, has turned into personal attacks. The agency's chairman, Ajit Pai, said threatening calls and emails had poured into his home and his wife's work. An image of a protest poster with his children's names was posted online and spread widely. Ethnic slurs aimed at Pai, whose parents immigrated from India, littered his Twitter feed.

There are also echoes of the 2016 presidential election, with accusations that not all of the reaction is coming from Americans. The federal agency is for the first time dealing with a powerful technology foe as automated software, known as bots, appear to have sent many comments to the site, according to data researchers.

And at least 4,00,000 comments about the issue since April on the FCC site appear to have originated from an apartment in St Petersburg, Russia, the agency said. It is unclear whether the emails originated from there or were made to look as if they did.

But none of that has overshadowed the heated reaction to the agency's proposal. "There doesn't seem to be middle ground on this issue," said John Beahn, a lawyer at Skadden Arps who specialises in regulation.

At the centre of the debate is whether telecom companies like AT&T and Verizon should be able to charge internet sites for delivering their data to consumers' homes. In 2015, the FCC voted to prohibit those charges, in a policy often called net neutrality.

But Pai, a Republican nominated for the chairmanship by President Donald Trump, said the regulations were heavy-handed and prevented telecom companies from pursuing new business models. His proposal, by stripping away the existing rules, would allow telecom companies to charge websites to deliver their data at higher speeds.

In a speech, Pai addressed some of the concerns that have been voiced since he released his proposal, pointing specifically to comments by celebrities like Cher and Kumail Nanjiani of "Silicon Valley." He said their tweets warning that his rules would lead to authoritarianism and a handout to big cable companies were "utterly absurd."

"I'd like to cut through hysteria and hot air and speak in plain terms about the plan," Pai said, adding that the plan would bring back the regulation-free policy that helped the internet thrive. He said big tech companies might be a bigger threat to online speech than telecom companies.

The proposal is expected to be approved at a meeting of the five FCC commissioners on December 14. The two other Republican commissioners have already expressed their support for Pai.

The 2015 rules also elicited strong interest. The FCC site was overwhelmed with comments after a monologue from the late-night host John Oliver went viral online. Some people who wanted the stronger rules blocked the driveway of the chairman at the time, Tom Wheeler, to try to persuade him to change the agency's plan.

Big web companies like Google and Netflix played activist roles as well, supporting the stronger rules. They argued that telecom companies should not be able to split sites into fast lanes and slow lanes because that would allow them to become a sort of gatekeeper for information and entertainment. In addition, they say, it would hurt startups without the money to pay for the faster lanes.

Pai, who opposed the rules as a commissioner in 2015, gave broad outlines of his plans early this year. For months, comments to the FCC website piled up, to more than 20 million. But the intensity has increased even more since Pai released the details of the proposal - perhaps in part because few people expected him to try to strip all of the existing rules. "We never expected this," wrote Craig Moffett, an analyst at the research firm MoffettNathanson.

Public interest groups like Free Press and organisations like Mozilla, the nonprofit behind the popular Firefox browser, said they were prepared to file suit against the plan as soon as the vote December 14. "The action hit a nerve because the internet is central to the vast majority of people's daily lives, and so people were very eager to understand what was happening over the weekend," said Denelle Dixon, chief legal officer for Mozilla.

The reaction from the biggest tech companies, however, has been noticeably subdued. Instead of forceful pleas from their executives, like those in years past on this issue, they are largely speaking through their trade group, the Internet Association, which has expressed disappointment over Pai's plan.

"Internet companies are firm supporters of the 2015 Open Internet Order and will continue our push for strong, enforceable net neutrality rules going forward," said Noah Theran, a spokesman for the IA. "We are reviewing the draft order and weighing our legal options.

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