The Trump administration seems intent on rolling back rules preventing companies that run internet data networks from playing favorites by selling some clients faster data transmission, while throttling others' data.
Some tech companies are gearing up for a fight over Obama-era rules that prohibit broadband providers from treating some web services - ahem, their own - better than rival services. These rules made the Federal Communications Commission a tough overseer of telecom.
But Ajit Pai, the new FCC chairman appointed by President Donald Trump, is a fierce critic of these rules, which enforce what is known as 'net neutrality.' Pai, the son of Indian immigrants who grew up in Kansas, said in December that the commission should take a "weed whacker" to what he characterized as unneeded rules, and was harshly critical of many FCC regulations imposed during the Obama administration.
The current rules bar broadband providers from blocking or slowing down disfavored websites, and prohibit them from charging internet companies like Netflix or Hulu for faster access to customers, a practice known as 'paid prioritization.' The rules also confer broad powers on the FCC to investigate companies' practices.
According to the FCC website, "The FCC's Open Internet rules protect and maintain open, uninhibited access to legal online content without broadband Internet access providers being allowed to block, impair, or establish fast/slow lanes to lawful content."
It's widely expected that Congress or the FCC will seek to undo or weaken these rules, though no formal plan is on the table yet.
Vimeo, a New York-based video sharing site that is part of billionaire media mogul Barry Diller's IAC/InterActiveCorp, is one of the most vocal proponents of net neutrality. Vimeo's general counsel, Michael Cheah, spoke with The Associated Press recently about what the company sees coming. Questions and answers have been edited for clarity and length.
Trump, the Twittering digital populist, seems intent on making Internet access a non-level pay-to-play playing field, giving vast power over what consumers see to the companies that own physical broadband infrastructure
AP: Why are you defending rules before anyone has made a move against them?
Michael Cheah: We wanted to show our support. If and when it does become a point under challenge, we will help organize.
What response do you expect from the tech community?
When people have something to lose, you get more people on board. You have a greater incentive for people to dig in and fight this. From private conversations I've had, there are companies big and small that do care about this. They are waiting to act.
Net neutrality got a lot of public support in 2014. Do you expect similar support when immigration, health care and other issues are already making headlines?
Is this a top-tier issue? Absolutely. It's how you get information. This time around it'll be just as important, if not more.
What do you think of legislation that enshrines net neutrality's principles but takes away the broader policing powers the rules gave the FCC? Republican lawmakers proposed that back in 2015.
You leave open too many ways for the carriers to do other things. There's too many levers they have the ability to pull. Zero rating is a good example of that.
Zero rating - that's when, for example, AT&T exempts its own video service, DirecTV Now, from phone data caps, but charges other video companies for the same favor. How does that hurt you?
A: We have concerns about (broadband providers) zero-rating their affiliated data. We also have problems with people who see zero rating as a profit center, try to charge for it. There's not much difference between that and paid prioritization.
nz/hg (AP, FCC website)