Losing net neutrality made it harder for Santa Clara County to fight its wildfires

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Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai and his staff are fond of taking to Twitter to assert that, in the just over two months since the repeal of the FCC’s 2015 network neutrality rules took effect, the “Internet remains free and open” — and that opponents’ concerns that unconstrained broadband providers will act in a way that harms consumers and competition are overblown. The 2015 rules prohibited broadband providers like Verizon, Comcast and AT&T from picking winners and losers by blocking, throttling or otherwise discriminating against or favoring certain Internet traffic.

Pai’s rose-colored glasses were smashed when it was revealed in the lawsuit challenging the repeal that Verizon had severely throttled the Santa Clara County Central Fire Protection District’s so-called “unlimited” broadband data service during the Mendocino Complex Fire, the largest in California state history. The FPD has attempted to use the broadband service to provide crisis response and essential emergency services, but it had been slowed to dial-up speeds. Verizon’s actions demonstrate plainly why net neutrality rules are needed: In the absence of rules, Verizon and other broadband providers will put profits over people even when it comes to matters of life and limb.

Even assuming that Verizon’s actions were not technically a violation of the 2015 net neutrality rules’ express prohibition against throttling internet traffic, the company’s actions may still have violated the 2015 rules. Those rules permitted complaints to be filed pursuant to what was called the “general conduct rule,” which prohibited broadband providers from unreasonably interfering or disadvantaging “end users’ ability to select, access, and use broadband internet access service or the lawful internet content, applications, services, or devices of their choice.” Certainly, the FPD could have made a persuasive case that Verizon was unreasonably interfering with its ability to use broadband internet access service. But, since the repeal of net neutrality, that avenue was not available. Equally important, the Trump FCC’s net neutrality repeal entirely abdicated the agency’s role in protecting consumers and competition in the broadband market.

[Gigi Sohn is a Distinguished Fellow at the Georgetown Law Institute for Technology Law & Policy and the Benton Foundation Senior Fellow and Public Advocate. She was Counselor to former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler from November 2013-December 2016]

Losing net neutrality made it harder for Santa Clara County to fight its wildfires