Members of Congress and consumer groups are pressuring the Federal Communications Commission to extend the deadline to file comments on its plan to repeal Obama-era net neutrality rules.
Over twenty Senate Democrats signed a letter to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai Thursday urging the Republican commissioner to give commenters another eight weeks to make their arguments for or against his plan to repeal the previous administration’s open internet regulations.
“The FCC currently plans to allow just thirty days for reply comments,” the letter from Massachusetts Democrat Sen. Ed Markey reads. “Yet in 2014, during the previous net neutrality proceeding, the FCC provided 60 days for Americans to reply.”
Pai’s proposed plan repeals the previous FCC’s reclassification of internet service providers (ISPs), like AT&T and Comcast, as public utilities, thereby removing the agency’s ability to impose some of its strongest regulatory powers like price setting. It also erases a rule that lets the agency generally police the activities of ISPs and questions the need for core net neutrality rules barring ISPs from blocking, throttling, and prioritizing web traffic.
The plan has received more than 15 million comments since May, with two weeks to go before the window closes for commenters to file responses to comments submitted through July 17. In 2014, during the first proceeding that culminated in passage of the rules, the FCC received what was then a record-setting 4 million comments, and gave commenters two months to file replies.
Unless the FCC extends the deadline, filers will only have until Aug. 16 — half as much time to respond to three times as many comments.
“The FCC should follow its own precedent and extend the reply comment period to ensure the fullest spectrum of comments fills the docket in this historic rulemaking,” Democratic Sens. Al Franken of Minnesota, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, and Cory Booker of New Jersey, along with Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont agreed in Thursday’s letter.
Pro-net neutrality groups Public Knowledge, Electronic Frontier Foundation, American Civil Liberties Union, and others filed the same request with the agency this week.
“This is by far the most comments ever filed in an FCC proceeding, and perhaps the most comments filed in any administrative proceeding in U.S. history,” a joint filing by the groups reads. “The current schedule does not afford interested persons enough time to read and properly consider the record, let alone to prepare their own replies.”
Pai told Congress in July he has no idea when the FCC will actually vote on the proceeding, given the sheer volume of comments it will have to comb through before drafting a proposal. Democrats, who uniformly oppose the plan, exhorted Pai to keep the record open long enough to receive and pay close attention to feedback that doesn’t just reconfirm his own beliefs (Pai voted against the rules in 2015).
After the FCC’s open meeting Thursday, the chairman reiterated there’s still time to file comments, and that he’ll give them all the attention and scrutiny required under agency rules.
“The comment period is still open,” Pai said. “Once it closes, we will be guided — as we always are — by the dictates of the Administrative Procedure Act (APA), which requires us to have substantial evidence for any conclusion we might reach, and the teaching of the Supreme Court in how we are to evaluate those comments.”
The APA requires federal agencies to weigh comments and adopt rules based on factual and legal soundness, not on the number of comments filed for or against a proposal.
“It’s preliminary, before the comment period has even closed, to make any determination, or any assessment of that determination, as to how we will evaluate the record,” he added.
Comments have become the center fixture of the debate, with groups on both sides highlighting concerns with hundreds of thousands of fake comments, how the agency will weigh them, how they were submitted, and even whether the FCC somehow took advantage of a May cyberattack to keep net neutrality supporters from filing comments following a “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” episode encouraging them to do so.
The chairman isn’t letting the heated debate over net neutrality bog down the agency or his primary goal of “bridging the digital divide.” Commissioners voted unanimously Thursday to advance a proposal that will hand out $2 billion to broadband providers willing to build out voice and high-speed internet to underserved rural areas, where building infrastructure is typically more expensive.
Another item brought the agency a step closer to giving out another $4.5 billion to help expand 4G LTE wireless coverage in rural areas. It also refined what data it will require from companies in order to better gauge where to apply those funds. Commissioners decided to consider whether to license new, higher airwaves for next-generation wireless broadband and whether to make companies commit to expanding their networks even further if they want to hold onto wireless licenses.