Photo: Andrew Harrer, Bloomberg
Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai on Wednesday sketched out his plan to sharply limit the government’s oversight of Internet providers.
It’s the most concerted move by the agency yet to undo the rules underpinning net neutrality — the policy intended to ensure that all Internet traffic is treated equally — and it could prove a prelude to a clash with some of Silicon Valley’s most prominent companies, many of which have advocated vigorously for strong protections they claim are essential to preserving a free and open Web.
In a speech to members of the conservative policy advocacy group FreedomWorks, Pai said he aims to do away with the government’s “heavy-handed” approach to Internet regulation, which, he said, chokes off investments essential to growing and improving Internet infrastructure.
“It’s basic economics: The more heavily you regulate something, the less of it you’re likely to get,” 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.”
On Thursday, Pai said, he will make public a proposal intended to roll back the FCC’s 2015 decision to classify fixed and mobile Internet service providers like Comcast or Verizon as “common carriers” similar to other utilities.
That designation gave the FCC the regulatory authority it needed to keep Internet providers from, among other things, creating pay-to-play prioritization schemes for Web traffic.
Netflix of Los Gatos is often cited as an example of a company that could be hurt by the repeal of net neutrality rules. Without those regulations, Internet providers could conceivably charge Netflix more than other companies to send its bandwidth-intensive videos over their networks. Comcast, for example, could also create “fast lanes” for its own content and constrict the speeds of its competitors, according to net neutrality proponents.
“We do not block, slow down, or discriminate against lawful content,” Dave Watson, President and CEO of Comcast Cable, said in a blog post. “There are better ways to guarantee net neutrality than classifying all broadband businesses under (common carrier) public utility regulations.”
Netflix did not respond to a request for comment.
In his speech, Pai said that such concerns about paid prioritization were the products of “hysterical prophecies of doom,” and that a free and open Internet could be achieved through “light-touch” federal oversight and industry self-regulation.
“It’s almost as if the special interests pushing (the regulations) weren’t trying to solve a real problem but instead looking for an excuse to achieve their long-standing goal of forcing the Internet under the federal government’s control,” he said. Pai has long been a strident opponent of the rules, and voted against them while serving as a deputy commissioner.
The FCC will vote on Pai’s proposal on May 18. If approved, the plan would then be thrown open to a public comment period. Pai said he had rejected calls for the agency to unilaterally overturn the rules without public input. “This decision should be made through an open and transparent process in which every American can share his or her views,” he said.
In a statement, Kathy Grillo, a senior vice president and attorney at Verizon focusing on public policy and government affairs, said that the company supports Pai’s efforts to roll back the regulations, calling them “the wrong way to ensure net neutrality.”
“Verizon supports net neutrality policies that protect an open Internet without discouraging competition and slowing job-generating investments,” she said.
Pai’s proposal got a far chillier reception from advocates of the current regulatory framework for net neutrality, which include a number of powerful tech companies.
“The current FCC net neutrality rules are working, and these consumer protections should not be changed,” said Michael Beckerman, CEO of the Internet Association, a policy advocacy group for Internet companies, in a post on the organization’s website. The organization counts companies like Amazon, Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Netflix among its ranks.
“Consumers pay for access to the entire Internet free from blocking, throttling, or paid prioritization,” Beckerman said. “Rolling back these rules … will result in a worse Internet for consumers and less innovation online.”
Ernesto Falcon, a legislative counsel with the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco, said that, despite Pai’s assurances to the contrary, it is “legally implausible” for net neutrality to be adequately enforced without the regulations FCC is seeking to do away with.
“You’re surrendering the legal authority of the FCC for nothing in return,” Falcon said. The San Francisco foundation has been among the most strident proponents for net neutrality regulations. “There are all sorts of ways Internet providers can favor and reshape content if there’s not a law in place that mandates a free and open network,” he said.
In concluding his remarks Wednesday, Pai appeared to foreshadow a possible showdown over the rule reversal. “Make no mistake about it,” he said. “This is a fight that we intend to wage and it is a fight that we are going to win.”