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 say is less prepared to handle it.
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” instead.
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 would 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 Thune (R-S.D.); House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.); Senate Communications, Technology and the Internet Subcommittee Chairman Roger Wicker (R-Miss.); and House Communications and Technology Subcommittee Chairman Marsha Blackburn (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 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 had passed in 2015.
“So what happened after the Commission adopted Title II?” he asked.
“Sure enough, infrastructure investment declined,” Pai said. “Reduced investment means fewer Americans will have high-speed Internet access. It means fewer American 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 a text full “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 is expected to 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 Markey (D-Mass.) said a Wednesday conference call ahead of Pai’s remarks.
The Senate Commerce Committee’s top Democrat, Sen. Bill Nelson 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.
Consumer groups that backed the net neutrality rules are outraged, 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 anticipated 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.
Updated 3:41 p.m.