Five Obama-era tech policies on the chopping block
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai is wasting little time undoing Obama-era regulations.
In a little over two months as chair, he’s scaled back a program on internet subsidies, ended a probe into companies’ phone data plans and scrapped a report on broadband funding for schools.
And he’s gotten help from President Trump and GOP lawmakers, who repealed privacy rules that would have restricted what internet service providers can do with customer data.
Pai, though, is only getting started. Here are five regulations or policies he’s working to roll back.
1. Net neutrality
When the FCC adopted its landmark net neutrality rules in 2015, requiring internet providers to treat all web traffic equally, Pai issued a 67-page statement blasting the order as regulatory overreach that would stifle the internet economy.
The rules rankled Republicans and the broadband industry because they reclassified internet service providers as telecommunications services, opening them to regulation similar to public utilities.
Pai has been meeting with industry representatives in recent days to lay out his plan to roll back the rules. The details still aren’t public, but would reportedly involve Pai no longer treating internet services providers as public utilities. In exchange, broadband companies would voluntarily include net neutrality principles in their terms of service with customers.
The idea is that the Federal Trade Commission, and not the FCC, would be in charge of policing companies. The FTC is largely responsible for taking action against companies that engage in deceptive practices — like violating their terms of services.
But critics worry internet providers could renege on their agreements and change their terms of service after the net neutrality rules are eliminated.
Some also say the process for repealing the rules, which generated a record amount of public comment in 2015, could take years.
2. Business data regulations
In the much nearer future, the FCC chairman is looking to deregulate the business data service (BDS) market — an area former Democratic FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler also tried to reform.
The services, also known as special access lines, allow businesses to securely transmit large amounts of data.
Wheeler had proposed new rules that he said would encourage competition in the market, but dropped that plan after Trump’s election.
At the agency’s open meeting on Thursday, the FCC, will vote on more deregulation of the market.
“Where this competition exists, we will relax unnecessary regulation, thereby creating greater incentives for the private sector to invest in next-generation networks,” Pai wrote in a blog post last month.
Some small business groups have criticized his plans, saying deregulation could drive up prices.
The Small Business Administration’s Office of Advocacy wrote a letter to the FCC asking them to delay the vote, warning the proposal “may result in reduced choices for small businesses.”
3. Broadband subsidies
Pai was quick to take on the FCC’s Lifeline program, which provides broadband subsidies to low-income households.
In February, he drew widespread criticism from proponents of the program when he revoked internet service providers from participating
Democrats accused him of breaking his promise to help expand broadband access to poor and rural Americans.
In a public blog post, Pai defended his moves.
“Hyperbolic headlines always attract more attention than mundane truths,” he wrote. “For example, a story detailing how the FCC was undertaking further review of the eligibility of 1% of Lifeline providers wouldn’t generate too many clicks.”
Last month, Pai went further, announcing the FCC would not approve any new companies to enter the program, and letting states pick their own participants. He also said the agency would no longer fight a legal challenge from states over how the FCC approved companies to take part.
“By letting states take the lead on certification as envisioned by Congress, we will strengthen the Lifeline program and put the implementation of last year’s order on a solid legal footing,” he said.
4. Media ownership limits
On Thursday, FCC commissioners will also be voting on a proposal to undo an Obama-era change to media ownership rules, which made it harder for major TV broadcasters to buy up local stations.
Broadcasters are currently limited to serving 39 percent of the country’s households. In August of last year, the FCC voted to do away with the “UHF discount “— which let broadcasting companies count just half of the audiences of certain channels they owned toward the 39 percent limit.
Pai is now proposing to bring it back, and the proposal is expected to pass next week.
Critics say it means more media consolidation and less diversity in news outlets.
“Further consolidation will ensure that there are fewer independent news outlets serving as a counter-balance to misleading or inaccurate information from other sources,” Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) wrote in a letter to Pai on Thursday.
Pai has said he believes the UHF discount is outdated but disagreed with how the FCC repealed it. He wants the agency to explore raising the ownership limit before doing away with the discount.
“I’m proposing that we hit the reset button, returning the rule to the way it was up until last fall,” he wrote in his March blog post. “And then we’ll launch a comprehensive review of the national ownership cap, including the UHF discount, later this year.”
5. Television box reforms
Obama FCC Chair Wheeler had proposed reforming the set-top box market, allowing consumers to buy them from third parties and breaking what critics call a cable company monopoly.
One of Pai’s first actions as chairman was to withdraw the proposal, prompting an angry response from his predecessor.
“Removing set-top box rule victory for Cablewood over consumers,” Wheeler tweeted in January. “$200 million Pai Tax on helpless cable subs. Trump helping little guy??”
Efforts to let consumers use third-party devices to access cable have run into staunch opposition from Republicans and the telecom industry.
When the proposal was considered last year, Pai argued that it would hinder efforts to develop technology that would do away with cable boxes. But how he’d change the market is still unclear.
“My view is pretty simple,” he said in a February 2016 statement. “Our goal should not be to unlock the box; it should be to eliminate the box.”
And as many predicted, the proposal was dead on arrival under Republicans.
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