FCC Enacts Rules to Address Digital Discrimination

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has introduced new rules aimed at eliminating discrimination in access to internet services, marking what regulators call the first major U.S. digital civil rights policy. The rules empower the FCC to review and investigate cases of discrimination by broadband providers based on factors such as income, race, ethnicity, and other protected classes. The framework also addresses digital inequities, including disparities in service investment for different neighborhoods and the broader issue of the "digital divide."

FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel stated that the rules are a response to Congress's mandate through bipartisan infrastructure legislation. The legislation requires the FCC to adopt rules addressing digital discrimination, which disproportionately affects communities of color, lower-income areas, and rural regions. The FCC hopes that the new rules will contribute to reducing the digital divide by ensuring broader access to the internet.

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The regulations empower the FCC to examine instances where internet service providers discriminate against communities in building, upgrading, or maintaining internet access. The rules also provide a framework for evaluating proposed service plans to determine if they would have a "discriminatory effect" that reasonable steps couldn't avoid. The FCC aims to streamline the reporting process for issues related to discrimination by establishing an official record of such cases.

Poorer, less-white neighborhoods have historically experienced lower investment in broadband infrastructure and less favorable deals for internet services compared to wealthier, predominantly white areas. The COVID-19 pandemic accentuated these inequities in access to digital services.

The telecommunications industry has opposed the new framework, arguing that it could hamper investment by imposing unnecessary regulations. The industry expressed concerns about potential litigation, calling the rules "potentially unlawful" and accusing the FCC of seeking "expansive new authority over virtually every aspect of the broadband marketplace."

Digital advocacy groups, including Free Press Action, have supported the new rules while calling on the FCC to go further by reclassifying certain aspects of broadband. The FCC is also set to reintroduce net neutrality rules that were rescinded during the Trump administration.

The FCC's move reflects a broader effort to address issues of digital discrimination and inequity, aligning with the Biden administration's goal of connecting every U.S. household to quality internet service by 2030.