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Net Neutrality The Reason Of Clash Between U.S. Government and States, Tech Firm

At the hearing in the U.S. Appeals Court for the District of Columbia, Judge Stephen Williams questioned Michalopoulos's assertions that the FCC had wrongly classified the internet as an information service.

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USA, Net Neutrality
A view of the E. Barrett Prettyman U.S. Courthouse that houses the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit in Washington. VOA

Tech companies and nearly two dozen U.S. states clashed with the government in federal court Friday over the repeal of net neutrality, a set of Obama-era rules aimed at preventing big internet providers from discriminating against certain technology and services.

Judges challenged arguments made by both sides in the face-off in an appeals court in Washington.

Lawyers for the states and the companies tried to persuade the three-judge panel to restore the net neutrality regime, set in 2015 but repealed in December 2017 at the direction of a regulator appointed by President Donald Trump. The companies challenging the FCC action include Mozilla, developer of the Firefox web browser, and Vimeo, a video-sharing site.

The net neutrality rules had banned cable, wireless and other broadband providers from blocking or slowing down websites and apps of their choosing, or charging Netflix and other video services extra to reach viewers faster.

Net Neutrality
A sign with an emoji that reads “Don’t take net neutrality away” is posted outside the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), in Washington, Dec. 14, 2017. VOA

The practice of slowing down transmission is known as “throttling.”

The action by the Federal Communications Commission rolling back the neutrality rules “is a stab in the heart of the Communications Act,” said attorney Pantelis Michalopoulos, referring to the Depression-era law that established the FCC.

Information vs. telecom service

The FCC wrongly classified the internet as an information service rather than a telecom service, using that as a rationale for not cracking down on misconduct by big internet providers, Michalopoulos said, who represents Mozilla and the other companies in the case.

Government lawyers, as well as big internet providers such as AT&T, Verizon and Comcast, argued to keep net neutrality repealed.

Thomas Johnson, the FCC’s general counsel, said the agency’s “light-touch” regulatory scheme, requiring the internet providers to disclose their practices and operations, provides adequate safeguards. The internet — used more extensively to transmit information — is different both in nature and function from phone service, Johnson maintained. It therefore should be regulated as an information service and not subject to the utility-style oversight of phone companies, he said.

Net Neutrality
State Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, left, receives congratulations from Assemblyman Rob Bonta, D-Alameda, center, and Sen. Kevin de Leon, D-Los Angeles, right, after his net neutrality bill was approved by the state Senate. VOA

The politically charged issue has emerged from its origins as an engineering challenge to become an anti-monopoly rallying point and even a focus for “resistance” to the Trump administration.

Once Trump took office, net neutrality became one of his first targets as part of broader government deregulation. The FCC chairman he appointed, Ajit Pai, made rolling back net neutrality a top priority.

On the other side, support for net neutrality comes from many of the same people who also are critical of the data-vacuuming tech giants that benefit from it. Politicians have glommed on to the cause to appear consumer-friendly.

The Democratic takeover of the House in November’s midterm elections could revive efforts to enshrine net neutrality in federal law, though Trump likely would veto any such attempts.

At the hearing in the U.S. Appeals Court for the District of Columbia, Judge Stephen Williams questioned Michalopoulos’s assertions that the FCC had wrongly classified the internet as an information service. Telephone services, too, offer an array of customer products, he said. On the question of broadband providers charging premiums for faster service, Williams said a large majority of consumers prefer cheaper, lower-speed options, citing polls.

Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Ajit Pai, center, announces the vote was approved to repeal net neutrality, next to Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, left, who voted no, and Commissioner Michael O'Rielly, who voted yes, at the FCC, Dec. 14, 20
Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Ajit Pai, center, announces the vote was approved to repeal net neutrality, next to Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, left, who voted no, and Commissioner Michael O’Rielly, who voted yes, at the FCC, Thursday, Dec. 14, 2017, in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

Judges’ views

The judges are weighing whether the FCC had the authority to nix the 2015 rules and get out of the business of enforcing net neutrality. It appeared that Williams was sympathetic to the FCC’s arguments, while Judge Patricia Millett raised possible legal avenues for the companies and states suing the agency, and Judge Robert Wilkins was the swing vote, said Doug Brake, director of broadband and spectrum policy for the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a Washington think tank.

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The judges could decide to can the repeal or send it back to the FCC for a redo if they have specific objections.

“Today we fought for an open and free internet that puts consumers first,” Mozilla Chief Operating Officer Denelle Dixon said after the hearing. “We believe the FCC needs to follow the rules like everyone else.” (VOA)

Next Story

Advance Of Summit, NATO Pacify Trump

NATO also plans to consider a Franco-German proposal

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Flags of NATO member countries
Flags of NATO member countries are seen at the Alliance headquarters in Brussels, Belgium. VOA

As Britain prepares for the NATO leaders’ meeting outside London December 3-4, the alliance said Thursday it had agreed to redistribute costs and cut the U.S. contribution to its central budget.

NATO’s central budget is relatively small at around $2.5 billion a year, mostly covering headquarters operations and staff, and different than its defense budget. U.S. President Donald Trump often complains of inequitable burden-sharing, with only nine of the 29 member countries meeting the 2%  of gross domestic product target for the alliance’s defense spending.

Regarding the central budget, “The U.S. will pay less, Germany will pay more, so now the U.S. and Germany will pay the same,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said in Paris Thursday.

The United States currently pays about 22% of NATO’s central budget. Beginning 2021, both U.S. and Germany will contribute about 16%.

NATO also plans to consider a Franco-German proposal to create a working group of “respected figures” to discuss reform in the alliance and address concerns about its future.

The announcement to reduce the American contribution is seen as a move to placate Trump, who has considered withdrawing from the alliance but has since taken credit for its promised reforms.

“In 2016, only four allies spent 2%  of GDP on defense,” a senior administration official told reporters Friday, adding that there are now nine countries, including the U.S.,  meeting the 2% target, with 18 expected to do so by 2024.

“This is tremendous progress, and I think it is due to the president’s diplomatic work,” he said.

 U.S. forces from Syria, a move Trump made without consulting NATO
A convoy of U.S. vehicle is seen after withdrawing from northern Syria, on the outskirts of Dohuk, Iraq. VOA

Internal strife

Leaders of the 29 member states will attempt a show of unity during the summit but the alliance is facing questioning about its relevance and unity, particularly after the October withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria, a move Trump made without consulting NATO.

“It’s exactly in the wake of that decision that you had [French] President [Emmanuel] Macron say what he said about the alliance being ‘brain-dead’ and referencing the lack of American leadership in the sense of leading in a community and not just going out on your own,” said Gary Schmitt, a NATO analyst with the American Enterprise Institute.

U.S. troops’ withdrawal from Syria prompted Turkey to launch an offensive against Kurdish YPG militia in northern Syria. The move spurred Macron to vent his frustration over what French diplomats say is NATO’s lack of coordination at a political level, and triggered fear among allies that the assault will undermine the battle against Islamic State militants.

Meanwhile, a simmering war between Russia and Ukraine has become the backdrop of Trump’s impeachment, with the American president allegedly having withheld hundreds of millions of dollars of military aid to pressure the Ukrainian government to announce an investigation of former Vice President Joe Biden, a Democratic presidential candidate running against Trump. Kyiv needs the aid to counter Moscow’s aggression.

The two conflicts in Europe’s eastern and southern flank further complicate Washington’s already-strained relations with other NATO members. Meanwhile, despite American efforts to reassure European leaders of Washington’s continuing commitment, anxiety about U.S. neglect of NATO under Trump persists, said Hans Kundnani, Senior Research Fellow in the Europe Program at Chatham House.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, welcomes NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, left, welcomes NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg during their meeting in Kyiv, Ukraine. VOA

Kundnani noted a series of American officials who have come to reassure Europeans not to take Trump’s tweets too seriously and focus on what is happening on the ground, particularly the military reinforcement of NATO’s eastern flank. Still, Kundnani said that in the last year Europeans have started to realize it’s “not really good enough” and they’re now facing the “reality of the of the crisis in NATO.”

“Some of them are hoping that Trump will be out of office in in a year’s time but the real fear is that Trump wins a second term,” said Kundnani, adding that some Europeans are hoping that “U.S. gradual withdrawal from Europe” might “snap back to the status quo ante if Trump is not re-elected.”

Diverging European responses

“The upcoming celebration of NATO’s 70th anniversary will be marked by important divisions within the alliance — not just across the Atlantic, but also within Europe,” said Karen Donfried, president of the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

In Paris, the view is “strategic autonomy,” said Donfried, with many in France concluding that Washington’s security guarantee can no longer be relied on. Warsaw is promoting “strategic embrace”  developing close bilateral relationship with Trump to guarantee its own security, while Berlin is advocating “strategic patience.”

Germany in the middle is a little bit divided between the “Atlanticists” and the “post-Atlanticists,”   Kundani said, adding that “Europeans are very much arguing” about these approaches.

Donfried said that against this backdrop, NATO allies are approaching the London summit with a sense of foreboding, knowing that they carry the responsibility to articulate alliance’s common purpose and ongoing relevance.

“If they don’t, [Russian President Vladimir] Putin will be raising a glass in Moscow to the fraught state of the alliance at 70,” she said.

Another summit goal for most European leaders, is to simply avoid a Trump flare-up, like those that have happened in past meetings.

NATO meetings
President Donald Trump meets with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson at the United Nations General Assembly, New York. VOA

Many have discovered this can be achieved through flattery. “They can talk about all the things that they’ve done and very smartly suggest that President Trump has generated the kind of pressure to make those things happen,” Schmitt said.

“They can actually praise President Trump, even though this is very hard for them to do because of the personality clashes.”

Many will be watching Trump’s encounters with Macron, including their bilateral meeting, as well as with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Johnson has pleaded for Trump to stay out of the upcoming British election during his London trip.

The senior administration official said that Trump is “aware of this” and “absolutely cognizant of not wading into other countries’ elections.”

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Other potential clashes are simmering too. Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said Friday that Emmanuel Macron’s NATO “brain-death” warning reflects a “sick and shallow” understanding, telling the French president “you should check whether you are brain dead.”

The French foreign ministry has summoned Turkey’s ambassador to Paris to protest the statement. (VOA)