Donald Trump’s top telecommunications regulator, Ajit Pai, promised to bring a weed whacker to excessive government regulation. After a busy few month of eliminating Obama-era programs at the Federal Communications Commission, Pai is expected to turn next to chopping up popular net neutrality rules.
The FCC rules, passed in 2015, bar Internet service providers from blocking or discriminating against web sites and online content. Many Internet companies and online rights groups say the rules are critical for protecting innovation and free expression. But big carriers like Verizon and AT&T say the rules are too burdensome and interfere with their ability to make enticing offers to consumers and businesses.
Pai has frequently spoken out against the net neutrality rules and voted against them when he was a FCC commissioner. Since being elevated to the position of chairman by Trump in January, he has plotted how best to undo the policy.
On Wednesday, Pai is scheduled to speak at the Newseum in Washington, D.C, where it is expected that he will begin to discuss his approach to undo the 2015 decision. On Tuesday, the agency would say only that the speech will concern the future of Internet regulation.
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Before adopting the current rules, the FCC twice tried to impose net neutrality rules that were struck down by courts as going beyond the agency’s authority. So on its third attempt, led by Obama-appointee Tom Wheeler, the FCC opted to designate Internet service providers in the same legal category as telephone service providers, common carriers. That worked in court, as the rules were finally upheld last year. But it also opened the door to imposing more regulations on the Internet providers in the future
Pai has said in the past that he is not opposed to some form of net neutrality protection, but it must be without the common carrier designation.
Initially, Pai was rumored to be considering a major change in policy that would take the FCC out of the business of protecting net neutrality altogether. Instead, Internet service providers would take a voluntary pledge not to discriminate online and the Federal Trade Commission would investigate any alleged violations of the pledges.
But last week, Pai said he had met with Internet companies and their trade groups to look for a compromise. “There’s common ground here and there’s room for an agreement here,” Pai told reporters at a press conference on Thursday.
Since the FCC has already adopted formal rules, Pai would have to follow a lengthy process to replace the net neutrality policy. He is expected to offer an outline of his approach in Wednesday’s speech followed by proposed rules to be issued for public comment at an upcoming FCC meeting, perhaps as soon as next month. Then after taking comments and a typical delay of four to six months, Pai would propose a final rule.
Some four million comments poured into the FCC in favor of the net neutrality rules in 2015, partly driven by comedian John Oliver, who explained the issue on his HBO show Last Week Tonight.
Already, the various sides are lining up to commence the battle yet again.
“The rigid rules that now govern Internet providers forbid an array of business models that could benefit consumers,” Ryan Radia, a research fellow at the pro-business Competitive Enterprise Institute, said in a statement. “Freezing today’s Internet in place, with all its shortcomings, will preclude the experimentation and bargaining among companies that causes markets to progress.”
One of the industry’s complaints came after Obama’s FCC tried to stop Verizon and AT&T from letting their wireless customers watch streaming video services without counting against monthly data caps. Pai put an end to the probes into so-called zero-rating of streaming services owned by the carriers themselves. Imposing common carrier regulation has also deterred companies from investing more to improve their Internet networks, Radia says.
Evan Greer, campaign director at the online rights group Fight for the Future, has been a strong proponent of the Obama FCC’s net neutrality rules. She fears a world where the big service providers can block or slow access to web sites that they oppose, or demand extra payments from companies that might pose a competitive threat.
“Ajit Pai isn’t even trying to hide the fact that he’s a puppet bureaucrat doing the bidding of companies like Comcast (CMCSA), AT&T (T), and Verizon (VZ) (his former employer.),” Greer said in her statement. “Moving so quickly to slash the protections that millions of Internet users from across the political spectrum fought for is a slap in the face to democracy and poses a serious threat to the future of freedom of expression.”
With the battle for public opinion already in full swing, all that remains is for Pai to make his move.