Supporters of net neutrality rules knew they were in for a fierce debate when their leading opponent, Federal Communications Commission chairman Ajit Pai, scheduled a speech on the issue for this week.
In an an address delivered at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday, Pai didn't disappoint. The chairman repeated many of the talking points used by critics of the rules that his agency passed in 2015 to protect web sites and online services from being blocked or discriminated against by the big Internet service providers.
"The Internet is the greatest free-market success story in history," he said, citing Google, Facebook, and Netflix as examples. But after years of a "light-touch regulatory framework," Pai said, the FCC in 2015 "decided to impose a set of heavy-handed regulations upon the Internet"—so-called Title II classification, a decades-old designation that regulates conventional telephone carriers and in its modern expansion includes Internet service providers to prevent paid prioritization of bandwidth, colloquially known as a "fast lane." It was a mistake, Pai said.
"When the FCC rammed through the Title II order two years ago, I expressed hope that we would look back at that vote as an aberration, a temporary deviation from the bipartisan path that had served us so well," he said.
Unlike his predecessor Tom Wheeler, who stepped down in December as the Obama administration came to an end, Pai didn't shy away from criticizing proponents of the 2015 policy.
"Consider, for example, the leading special interest in favor of Title II: a spectacularly misnamed Beltway lobbying group called Free Press," Pai said. "Its co-founder and current board member makes no effort to hide the group’s true agenda. While he says 'we’re not at the point yet' where we can 'completely eliminate the telephone and cable companies,' he admits that 'the ultimate goal is to get rid of the media capitalists in the phone and cable companies and to divest them from control.' And who would assume control of the Internet? The government, of course. The overall goal is to 'remove brick by brick the capitalist system itself, rebuilding the entire society on socialist principles.'"
Free Press, a nonprofit, is hardly the only group supporting the 2015 rules. And the unnamed co-founder—emeritus board member and professor Robert McChesney—has nothing to do with its current net neutrality efforts.
"It's silly," says Free Press president Craig Aaron. "It doesn't represent our views or work. And it shouldn't distract from what Pai is trying to do to end net neutrality and give unchecked power over the Internet to companies like Comcast, Verizon, and AT&T."
AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast, three of the country's largest Internet service providers, have all issued statements supporting Pai's efforts.
The move to create a deep partisan divide over net neutrality troubles Kevin Werbach, a professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania who worked on Internet issues at the FCC during the Clinton administration in the 1990s.
"Pai is clearly trying to throw some red meat to the right-wing base in order to counter the broad popular support for open Internet protections," says Werbach, who supports the 2015 rules. "He demonized one advocacy group to distract attention from the many entrepreneurs, economists, legal scholars, and technologists who supported the FCC’s open Internet rules. That's not the job for the head of an independent administrative agency."
The chairman clearly disagrees.
Said Pai: "Make no mistake about it: This is a fight that we intend to wage and it is a fight that we are going to win."
Editor's Note, April 27, 2017: The headline of this story and several passages have been changed or removed to more accurately characterize Pai's statements.