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FCC Chairman Calls for Repeal of Regulatory Underpinning of Net Neutrality Rules

Variety logo Variety 4/26/2017 Ted Johnson
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FCC Chairman Ajit Pai unveiled his approach forward on net neutrality, as he called for the repeal of a regulatory framework that allowed his predecessor to establish robust rules of the road for the internet.

In a speech at the Newseum on Wednesday, Pai took aim at the classification of Internet service as a common carrier, a regulatory designation known as “Title II” that is akin to that classification given to utilities. The FCC in 2015 classified the Internet that way, and Pai was one of its chief critics.

The classification of the Internet as a common carrier is what champions of net neutrality say is necessary for the FCC to establish an enforceable set of rules that prevent internet providers from favoring their own content, or that from companies who pay them, with speedier delivery to the consumer.

Pai now is proposing to “reverse the mistake of Title II,” and to return the internet’s classification to a Title I information service, a light-touch regulatory approach he said worked as the Internet flourished in the 1990s and early 2000s.

“The truth of the matter is we decided to abandon successful policies solely because of hypothetical harms and hysterical prophecies of doom,” Pai said.

A vote is scheduled for May 18 to open a proceeding, in which members of the public will be able to weigh in with their comments. He also will seek comments on a move to remove an “Internet conduct” standard that gives the agency an ability to monitor changes in Internet service, and will pose questions on just what rules should govern broadband providers. At his speech, though, Pai left undefined just what those rules should be.

The complete proposal will be released on Thursday, he said. He added that the proposal will “bring high speed internet to more Americans,” create jobs and boost competition.

“This is a fight we intend to wage, and this is a fight we are going to win,” he said.

Democrats and a number of public interest groups immediately criticized Pai’s plans.

Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), the ranking member of the Senate Commerce Committee, said in a statement, “Gutting these rules robs Americans of protections that preserve their access to the open and free internet. 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.”

One of the chief arguments for net neutrality is that without rules in place, the internet will devolve into a system of tiers, akin to cable television, in which large content companies would dominate because of their ability to pay for better access to consumers.

The Internet Association, a trade group representing major Internet companies like Google, Facebook and Amazon, said in a statement, “Rolling back these rules or reducing the legal sustainability of the Order will result in a worse internet for consumers and less innovation online.”

By contrast, Internet service providers largely opposed the FCC’s 2015 reclassification, and support Pai’s move.

Comcast CEO Brian Roberts said that the company supported Pai’s plans to reverse that move.

Roberts added that the proposed reversal “does not mean there will be no open Internet protections, but rather creates an environment where we can have a fresh constructive dialogue.

“To be clear, we continue to strongly support a free and open Internet and the preservation of modern, strong, and legally enforceable net neutrality protections,” he said.

Pai was speaking at an event for FreedomWorks, a conservative group that has long called for rolling back an array of government regulation. A number of speakers made the case for rolling back the Internet regulation, arguing that it has diminished investment.

In his speech, he argued that the FCC in 2015 “decided to put the government at the center of the internet,” moving away from years of light-touch regulation.

Pai charged that then-FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler had been moving toward a lighter set of rules until President Obama weighed in just after the 2014 midterms and backed the reclassification of the Internet as a common carrier.

He argued that Wheeler was influenced by Obama’s move, even though the FCC is an independent agency.

“This was a transparent attempt to compromise the agency’s independence. And it worked,” Pai said.

But the FCC’s move to reclassify Internet service came after an aggressive campaign from public interest groups and some major Internet companies, with almost 4 million people weighing in with comments to the agency.

Gigi Sohn, former counselor to Wheeler, said that she expected to see a pushback against Pai’s move to rollback the net neutrality rules.

“I see it far exceeding” what happened in 2015, she said. “What you are doing is taking away something people have had. I think you are going to see even more of an outpouring” of comments from the public.

In his speech, Pai seemed well aware that his proposal will be met with opposition. He even singled out Free Press, one of the public interest groups that has already been waging campaigns warning that he would move to repeal.

He said that he was confident “we will finish the job” with a vote to reverse Title II later this year.

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