US FCC to repeal net neutrality, could increase cyber-security threats
US FCC to repeal net neutrality, could increase cyber-security threats

Despite calls for US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Ajit Pai to temporarily suspend the vote on net neutrality until an investigation into fake comments on the public docket could be completed, the commission decided today to repeal the regulations put in place under the former US President Obama's administration, prompting criticism that the move would not only choke freedom but would compromise security and privacy.

“The removal of net neutrality is likely to decrease transparency on the Internet, and less transparency will increase cyber-security threats,” Tim Erlin, vice president, product management and strategy at Tripwire, noting that ISPs will implement different behaviours to manage, filter and alter content, “we're going to develop towards a bunch of different internets,” rather than a single Internet. “It may not be at the forefront of the net neutrality debate, but these changes will ultimately increase the attack surface available to criminals. If ISPs are no longer required to pass traffic unaltered, they can simply stop end-to-end encryption entirely.”

Erlin explained that without net neutrality security could easily become a premium service. “Why wouldn't an ISP charge businesses and individuals more for supporting encrypted traffic?” he said. “It may not be the first impact, but losing net neutrality opens up the possibility of ISPs mining previously encrypted traffic for valuable data.”

The commission, which said in a statement that it “is returning to the traditional light-touch framework that was in place until 2015,” noted that it also had “adopted robust transparency requirements that will empower consumers as well as facilitate effective government oversight of broadband providers' conduct.”  The US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) will once again have the jurisdiction “to act when broadband providers engage in anti-competitive, unfair, or deceptive acts or practices,” the FCC said.     

But critics viewed the move as political and expressed skepticism that promises of transparency and oversight can be met. Calling the FCC's move “a giant step backwards for the greater internet community,” Michael Patterson, CEO of Plixer, said it was “a prime example of lobbyists having too much power in Congress and US representatives not understanding the ramifications that these decisions can lead to.”

Patterson said most consumers only have one viable option for internet access – their broadband provider. “Creating choice and competition, as the FCC has said this will do, requires there to be consumer options,” he said. “Service providers now have the ability to take an a la carte approach to service delivery, which will result in higher consumer cost.”

Noting that “since the end of the dial-up era, the FCC has enforced network neutrality principles and helped create the internet as we know it,” Jay Stanley, American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) senior policy analyst, called the FCC action “misguided” and said it “represents a radical departure that risks erosion of the biggest free speech platform the world has ever known.”

But Comcast senior executive vice president and chief diversity officer David L Cohen rejected the notion that net neutrality was coming to an end with the commission's vote. Commending Pai and the other two Republican commissioners for "returning to a regulatory environment that allowed the Internet to thrive for decades by eliminating burdensome Title II regulations and opening the door for increased investment and digital innovation," Cohen said, "today's action does not mark the ‘end of the Internet as we know it;' rather it heralds in a new era of light regulation" of benefit to consumers.

Pai has long been on the path to repeal the regulations. More recently, a number of the comments expressing support for the repeal on the FCC's public docket were discovered to indeed be fraudulent, some generated from Russian addresses and posted under the names of deceased persons.

In the wake of that discovery, 28 senators in a letter called on Pai to delay its vote on repealing net neutrality and investigate several unusual issues centered on the net neutrality docket's public comment record. And 18 state attorneys general led by New York AG Eric Schneiderman, also urged the FCC to hold off on its vote. But Pai pressed on, drawing the ire of critics.

“Why did @FCC and @AjitPaiFCC rush this vote on #NetNeutrality despite known fraud & criminal activity in the public process?” tweeted Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif. “I look forward to Chairman Pai one day testifying under oath to Congress as to why he ignored 18 Attorneys General. Did Chairman Pai aid and abet fraud?”

Schneiderman has pledged to lodge a multi-state lawsuit against the agency and the ACLU and Fight for Freedom have all promised to challenge the decision. “The fight for network neutrality is not over by any means,” said Stanley. “The ACLU and our allies will be fighting back in every possible arena to restore these crucial protections.”

Fight for the Future issued a statement saying that a number of organisations behind BattleForTheNet.com and Team Internet would be launching an internet-wide campaign to get Congress to employ a Resolution of Disapproval under the Congressional Review Act to overturn the decision.

“A CRA only requires a simple majority in the [US] Senate and House, increasingly within reach given the unprecedented backlash, and Republican lawmakers already publicly criticising the plan,” the statement said. “Now every member of [US] Congress will have to go on the record and decide whether to stand up for the free and open Internet or face the political consequences of awakening its wrath in an election year.”