On April 25, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted 3-2 to restore net neutrality rules to regulate Internet service providers. The FCC reclassifies broadband service as a Title II telecommunications service and gains authority and supervision over broadband services. As a result, the FCC is exercising immediately its authority to order 4 Chinese-operators to cease any fixed or mobile broadband service operations in the United States within 60 days.

According to the FCC announcement, the FCC restores fundamental authority to provide effective oversight over broadband service providers, giving the FCC essential tools to:

  • Protect the Open Internet – Internet service providers will again be prohibited from blocking, throttling, or engaging in paid prioritization of lawful content, restoring the rules that were upheld by the D.C. Circuit in 2016.
  • Safeguard National Security – The Commission will have the ability to revoke the authorizations of foreign-owned entities who pose a threat to national security to operate broadband networks in the U.S. The Commission has previously exercised this authority under section 214 of the Communications Act to revoke the operating authorities of four Chinese state-owned carriers to provide voice services in the U.S. Any provider without section 214 authorization for voice services must now also cease any fixed or mobile broadband service operations in the United States.
  • Monitor Internet Service Outages – When workers cannot telework, students cannot study, or businesses cannot market their products because their internet service is out, the FCC can now play an active role.

By the end of 2022, the FCC had revoked Section 214 authorizations to four China-based operators: China Telecom (Americas) Corporation, China Unicom (Americas) Operations Limited, Pacific Networks Corp. and its wholly owned subsidiary ComNet (USA) LLC, and denied the application for Section 214 authorization by China Mobile International (USA) Inc..

China Telecom, China Unicom and China Mobile are state-owned operators in China. Pacific Networks and its wholly owned subsidiary ComNet are ultimately owned and controlled by CITIC Group Corporation, a state-owned company in China.

Without the net neutrality regulations, broadband internet access services (ISP services) are unregulated by the FCC. Although the above Chinese operators have been banned and blocked from providing telecommunications services under Section 214 in the United States, they are still providing ISP services in the market. 

The net neutrality regulations are set to go into effect 60 days after their publication in the Federal Register.

The FCC has immediately ordered the four China-based internet service providers to discontinue fixed or mobile broadband internet operations in the United States. They must leave the market within 60 days.

Histroy of Net Neutrality

The principle of net neutrality was that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) should make no distinctions between different kinds of content on the Internet, and to not discriminate based on such distinctions.

With net neutrality, ISPs may not intentionally block, slow down, or charge different rates for specific online content. Without net neutrality, ISPs may prioritize certain types of traffic, meter others, or potentially block specific types of content, while charging consumers different rates for that content.

There are turnovers on how to regulate ISPs and how ISPs should be classified under the Communications Act of 1934 as amended by the Telecommunications Act of 1996: as either Title I "information services" or Title II "common carrier services".

The classification determines the FCC authority over ISPs.

The FCC would have significant ability to regulate ISPs if classified as common carriers, but would have little control over them if classified as information services.

In addition to choosing what regulations to set on common carriers. The five FCC commissioners changes with each new administration, and no more than three members may be of the same political party, thus the FCC's attitudes and rule-making regarding net neutrality shifts relatively frequently.

In 1996, the Communications Act of 1934 was amended with the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which besides other provisions, defined "information service" under Title I unregulated by the FCC.  The "information service" means the offering of a capability for generating, acquiring, storing, transforming, processing, retrieving, utilizing, or making available information via telecommunications, and includes electronic publishing, but does not include any use of any such capability for the management, control, or operation of a telecommunications system or the management of a telecommunications service.

The introduction of "information service" prompted many cable-based Internet access providers to urge the FCC to classify their services as Title I information services, rather than as cable providers under Title III which required them to provide open access to other service provides. 

In 2022, the FCC determined that cable ISPs were neither a telecommunications provider (under Title II) nor a cable provider (under Title III) but were solely an information service that fell under Title I and thus could operate unregulated by the FCC.

In May 2003, the Ninth Circuit vacated the FCC's ruling, stating that cable ISPs had a telecommunications function and thus should be regulated under Title II.

June 2005, the Supreme Court's decision reversed the Ninth Circuit's ruling, deeming that the FCC had properly defined cable ISPs as an information service. The decision empowers the FCC to classify Internet services subject to their interpretation, which has played a key role in how net neutrality has since played out in the United States with changing administrations.

In the United States, broadband services were historically regulated differently according to the technology by which they were carried. While cable Internet has always been classified by the FCC as an information service free of most regulation, digital subscriber line (DSL, commonly ADSL) was regulated as a telecommunications service.

In 2005, the FCC reclassified Internet access across the phone network, including DSL, as a Title I "information service" relaxing the common carrier regulations and allowing them to operate unregulated by the FCC.

And in a policy statement in 2005 (the 2005 Internet Policy Statement), the FCC reiterated the nondiscrimination principle that ISPs must not discriminate against any content or applications, and the transparency principle, requiring that ISPs disclose all their policies to customers.

In 2007, there was a famous case that Comcast, the largest cable company in the US, was finding to block or severely delay BitTorrent uploads on their network. In March, 2008, Comcast and BitTorrent reached an agreement to work together on network traffic where Comcast was to adopt a protocol-neutral stance "as soon as the end of 2008", and explore ways to "more effectively manage traffic on its network at peak times.

In August 2008, the FCC made its first Internet network management decision, to uphold a complaint against Comcast ruling that it had illegally inhibited users of its high-speed Internet service. The FCC required Comcast to end such blocking in the year 2008. The then-FCC chairman Kevin J. Martin said the order was meant to set a precedent, that Internet providers and all communications companies could not prevent customers from using their networks the way they see fit, unless there is a good reason. 

Towards the end of 2009, the FCC began drafting new rules that would include a series of proposals that would prevent telecommunications, cable and wireless companies from blocking certain information on the Internet. In October 2009, the FCC gave notice of proposed rule making on net neutrality.

In December 2010, the FCC voted to approve the Open Internet Order banning cable television and telephone service providers from preventing access to competitors or certain web sites (the 2010 Open Internet Order). The order established six net neutrality principles that would apply to ISPs, i.e., transparency, no blocking, level playing field (non-discrimination), network management, mobile and vigilance.

But the 2010 Open Internet Order did not reclassify ISPs under Title II common carriers, leaving them unregulated by the FCC under Title I information services as a cumulative result of past FCC orders.

When it turned to the Obama administration, Verizon Communications challenged the 2010 Open Internet Order at the D.C. Circuit court in early 2011, asserting that the FCC had overstepped its authority by applying principles to Title I information services. 

In January 2014, the D.C. Circuit ruled  to vacate the no blocking and non-discrimination principles from the 2010 Open Internet Order while upholding other parts. The decision determined that the FCC improperly relied on Section 706 of the amended Communications Act, which gives the FCC authority to incentivize the deployment of telecommunications services to all Americans including those in rural and low-income areas. The Court ruled that ISPs were still specifically treated as Title I information services by the FCC, and for the FCC to be able to regulate aspects like blocking or discrimination, they would specifically have to be cataloged as telecommunication common carriers under Title II. 

And the then President Obama supported reclassifying ISPs as common carriers under Title II.

By January 2015, the FCC announced it had revised its prior rules and would be voting on a new preliminary ruling that defined ISPs as a Title II common carrier telecommunication service, with some necessary exemptions.

On February 25, 2015, the FCC voted 3–2 to pass these new rules (the 2015 Open Internet Order),  which reclassified broadband internet access service (ISP service) as a common carrier service regulated under Title II. This shift in classification enabled the FCC to implement the net neutrality rules and the principles it had been aiming to enforce since the 2005 Internet Policy Statement. The FCC also adopted a more lenient level of common carrier treatment  for ISPs, similar to what it had previously employed for the mobile wireless. 

Following the publication of the 2015 Open Internet Order, several internet providers filed suit to challenge the FCC's ruling.

Shortly after Trump's inauguration as President in January 2017, Trump appointed Ajit Pai as the new chairman of the FCC. Pai objected to the 2015 Open Internet Order, and quickly began to roll back some of the policies that had been implemented by the FCC during the Obama administration.

On December 14, 2017, the FCC voted 3-2 to enact the Restoring Internet freedom rules and repeal the 2015 Open Internet Order. The vote reversed course by reclassifying ISPs as a Title I information service, rolling back net neutrality regulations. As a result, all the net neutrality rules from the 2015 Open Internet Order were repealed except for the transparency requirements which were gutted and revised substantially.

The reclassification generated the forceful dissent of Jessica Rosenworcel, who was then a commissioner and is now chair of the FCC. 

In addition to roll back net neutrality regulations to reclassify ISPs as a Title I information service, Pai appealed for reforming the Team Telecom process, i.e., the process by which the Executive Branch offers its views on applications and petitions to the FCC involving foreign ownership (such as the applications for submarine cable landing licenses and Section 214 authorizations),  requesting the Executive Branch to provide its expert input to the FCC in a timely manner. This resulted in the then President Trump’s Executive Order on Establishing the Committee for the Assessment of Foreign Participation in the United States Telecommunications Services Sector, formalizing the Team Telecom process.

In January 2021, Joe Biden became President. Ajit Pai announced his departure from the FCC in the same month. Biden named Jessica Rosenworcel, an Obama-era appointee to the FCC, as acting chairperson. Rosenworcel was a vocal proponent for net neutrality in previous FCC rulings.

Rosenworcel-led FCC tried to restore the net neutrality rules that had been undone during the Trump administration. The resignation of Pai in January 2021 left the FCC at a two-two deadlock until September 2023, when Biden-nominated Anna M. Gomez was sworn in as the Commission's fifth member. Rosenworcel stated immediately following Gomez's onboard that the FCC plans to re-introduce net neutrality rule,

The FCC voted 3-2 on October 19, 2023, to approve issuing a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) seeking comments about rolling back to the rules under the 2015 Open Internet Order. The FCC chair Jessica Rosenworcel said that the agency's proposal to reinstate net neutrality rules could give it new authority to force the removal of equipment from China-based Huawei and ZTE from U.S. networks, including data centers.

The commenting period was closed on January 18, 2024. 

On April 25, 2024, the The FCC voted 3-2 to reclassify Internet services under Title II, enforcing net neutrality.

On the same day after the vote, the FCC immediately ordered the four China-based internet services providers, China Mobile, China Telecom, China Unicom and Pacific Networks, to discontinue fixed or mobile broadband internet operations in the United States. They must leave the market within 60 days of the net neutrality ruling.