FCC head unveils plan to roll back net neutrality

FCC head unveils plan to roll back net neutrality
© Getty

Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Ajit Pai on Wednesday revealed his plans for rolling back net neutrality, one of the most controversial items up for consideration at the agency.

During a speech at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., Pai said he plans to hand regulatory jurisdiction of broadband providers back to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), an agency that critics argue is less prepared to handle them.

Originally passed under Democrat Tom Wheeler’s chairmanship, the net neutrality rules — more formally referred to as the Open Internet Order of 2015 — set restrictions on internet service providers (ISPs) prioritizing certain kinds of web traffic and throttling others. The rules were broadly aimed at establishing a level playing field for companies on the internet.

Broadband companies quickly praised Pai’s proposal.

"We applaud FCC Chairman Pai's initiative to remove this stifling regulatory cloud over the internet,” AT&T said in a blog post. “Businesses large and small will have a clearer path to invest more in our nation's broadband infrastructure under Chairman Pai's leadership.”

The company said that despite the proposed changes, AT&T “continues to support the fundamental tenets of net neutrality.”

Broadband provider Charter Communications also expressed support for net neutrality principles.

"Charter’s support for an open internet is an integral part of our commitment to deliver a superior broadband experience to our customers," Charter CEO Thomas Rutledge said. "That will never change."

Notably, Pai did not once utter the phrase “net neutrality” during his remarks, opting to refer to the principles as the “open internet.”

Telecommunications companies and Republicans at the FCC have argued that net neutrality is an example of the government overstepping its boundaries with onerous regulations that stifle broadband innovation and investment.

Republicans in Congress also expressed their support for Pai's plan.

“We have long said that imposing a Depression-era, utility-style regulatory structure onto the internet was the wrong approach, and we applaud Chairman Pai’s efforts to roll back these misguided regulations," Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee Chairman John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneGOP cautions Graham against hauling Biden before Senate War of words at the White House Lawmakers toast Greta Van Susteren's new show MORE (R-S.D.), House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.), Senate Communications, Technology and the Internet Subcommittee Chairman Roger WickerRoger Frederick WickerHillicon Valley: Zuckerberg defends handling of misinformation in political ads | Biden camp hits Zuckerberg over remarks | Dem bill would jail tech execs for lying about privacy | Consumer safety agency accidentally disclosed personal data Overnight Defense — Presented by Boeing — Pence says Turkey agrees to ceasefire | Senators vow to move forward with Turkey sanctions | Mulvaney walks back comments tying Ukraine aid to 2016 probe On The Money: Senate fails to override Trump veto over border emergency | Trump resort to host G-7 next year | Senators to push Turkey sanctions despite ceasefire | McConnell tees up funding votes MORE (R-Miss.) and House Communications and Technology Subcommittee Chairman Marsha BlackburnMarsha BlackburnGraham, Van Hollen introduce Turkey sanctions bill Lawmakers toast Greta Van Susteren's new show GOP senators say Erdoğan White House invitation should be revoked MORE (R-Tenn.) said in a joint statement.

"Consumers want an open internet that doesn’t discriminate on content and protects free speech and consumer privacy,” they added.

“It’s now time for Republicans and Democrats, internet service providers, edge providers, and the internet community as a whole to come together and work toward a legislative solution that benefits consumers and the future of the internet.”

Pai’s proposed reforms will tackle one of the most controversial portions of net neutrality: the reclassification of broadband providers as “common carriers,” which gives the FCC the authority to regulate them. Broadband service providers such as AT&T, Comcast and Verizon have hammered these rules, arguing they are unnecessary and that the FCC should not regulate them.

The Republican chairman appears to be taking that argument to heart.

Pai said his proposed changes would reinvigorate broadband investment, which he said had declined since the Open Internet Order passed in 2015.

"So what happened after the Commission adopted Title II?” he asked.

“Sure enough, infrastructure investment declined," Pai continued. "Reduced investment means fewer Americans will have high-speed internet access. It means fewer Americans will have jobs. And it means less competition for consumers."

"It’s basic economics: The more heavily you regulate something, the less of it you’re likely to get.”

The FCC will release the full text of its “Notice Of Proposed Rulemaking” on net neutrality Thursday, which be voted on at the May 18 FCC open meeting.

Should it pass, the public will then be able to file comments on the proposal.

A 2014 poll by the University of Delaware's Center for Political Communication found that 81 percent of consumers supported net neutrality provisions.

Pai said Wednesday he is in favor of net neutrality principles, but it is expected he will call on broadband companies to draw up their own protections in their terms of service, which would then be enforced by the FTC.

That drew criticism from some Democrats.

“That’s like saying you value math, but you don’t value numbers. We can’t keep the promise of net neutrality without the rules,” Sen. Ed MarkeyEdward (Ed) John MarkeyFlight attendant union endorses Markey in Senate primary battle Overnight Defense — Presented by Boeing — House passes resolution rebuking Trump over Syria | Sparks fly at White House meeting on Syria | Dems say Trump called Pelosi a 'third-rate politician' | Trump, Graham trade jabs Senate confirms Trump's Air Force secretary pick MORE (D-Mass.) said on a Wednesday conference call ahead of Pai’s remarks.

The Senate Commerce Committee’s top Democrat, Sen. Bill NelsonClarence (Bill) William NelsonBottom Line Bottom Line Media and candidates should be ashamed that they don't talk about obesity MORE of Florida, also blasted Pai’s plan.

“Gutting these rules robs Americans of protections that preserve their access to the open and free internet,” Nelson said in a statement. 

“Depriving the FCC of its ongoing, forward-looking oversight of the broadband industry amounts to a dereliction of duty at a time when guaranteeing an open internet is more critical than ever.”

Consumer groups that backed the net neutrality rules expressed outrage, and many have been mobilizing since Pai’s expected changes were reported earlier in April.

On the same conference call with Markey, leaders from the advocacy groups Free Press and Fight for the Future hammered Pai’s policy shift on the matter.

“By attacking net neutrality, Ajit Pai is potentially opening the floodgates for widespread internet censorship by ISPs,” Evan Greer, campaign director at Fight for the Future, said.

Craig Aaron, CEO of Free Press, mocked the idea that broadband companies would “pinky swear” to voluntarily follow net neutrality principles under Pai’s guidelines.

“Hell hath no fury like the internet scorned,” Greer continued, noting that past attempts to regulate the internet in favor of industry interests had led to widespread public backlash.

He warned that Pai’s changes would likely be subject to the same treatment.

Democrats such as Sens. Brian Schatz (Hawaii), Richard Blumenthal (Conn.) and Markey who are opposed to Pai’s proposed net neutrality reforms have said they intend to leverage this backlash in their efforts to keep the FCC and Republicans in Congress from gutting net neutrality rules.

“Chairman Pai should expect a tsunami of resistance from Americans defending net neutrality,” Markey said.

Updated 4:31 p.m.