A group of more than 800 US-based startups on Wednesday issued a letter urging Federal Communications Chairman Ajit Pai not to undo Obama-era “net-neutrality” rules, the latest sign of a looming fight over the future of internet regulation.
The letter was organised by prominent startup incubator Y Combinator, accelerator TechStars, and startup advocacy group Engine. Y Combinator is led by noted Silicon Valley venture capitalist Sam Altman, who has expressed support for the current net-neutrality laws in the past.
Startups from all 50 states have signed the notice, including popular sites like Kickstarter, Foursquare, Medium, and Etsy.
The existence of the letter was first reported by Axios earlier this month. It is now revealing its signees and being made public on the same day Pai is expected to unveil the first details of his plan to undo the current net-neutrality laws.
Those laws were passed along party lines in 2015. They most notably prevent internet service providers like Comcast, Verizon, and AT&T from blocking or slowing the speeds of certain sites or apps, and from creating so-called “fast lanes” for preferred services in exchange for payment. They exist at a time where some large ISPs are increasingly looking to own or distribute content that competes with other online services.
Pai has said on multiple occasions that he supports a “free and open internet,” but that he opposes the framework the FCC used to enforce those laws. That framework involved reclassifying ISPs as “telecommunications services” under Title II of the Communications Act, and thus giving the FCC stronger authority in saying what those ISPs can and cannot do.
Pai has said he thinks that Title II classification is too heavy-handed, and that it has slowed ISPs’ willingness to expand and upgrade their broadband networks. Various media reports this week said he will unveil a high-level plan to undo the classification on Wednesday.
Pai and Republican commissioner Mike O’Rielly currently hold a 2-1 majority at the agency.
Various reports from earlier in the month said Pai has floated the idea of having ISPs voluntarily commit to upholding the core principles of net-neutrality in writing, and subject them to less stringent federal oversight via the Federal Trade Commission.
Net-neutrality advocates, including those signing the letter, say Pai’s reported plan would be too lenient. The letter contends that it “would give a green light for internet access providers to discriminate in unforeseen ways.”
Some larger tech companies defended the current rules through a trade group that met with Pai earlier in the month, but with no formal rollback attempt announced, most have not vocalized support of them individually.
Smaller startups generally have an easier time defending stricter net-neutrality rules, since they are less likely, hypothetically speaking, to benefit from systems that allow ISPs to give some services preferential treatment. Netflix, for instance, said in January it supports today’s laws, but that it’s likely too popular to be affected by any policy changes.
“Our companies should be able to compete with incumbents on the quality of our products and services, not our capacity to pay tolls to internet access providers,” the letter says.
Whatever the case, the letter is just the latest sign of the political battle that is likely to come with any attempt at a net-neutrality rollback. Democrats and consumer advocacy groups strongly support the current laws, and the FCC said it received a record-breaking 3.7 million comments on the topic when it was debated in 2014.
You can read the full letter below: