In a move that has been widely expected since he was named Federal Communications Commission chairman, Ajit Pai has announced that he plans to end the changes his predecessor made when the FCC decided that the internet should be covered by Title II of the Communications Act.
Pai was a commissioner when former Chairman Tom Wheeler forced through the change at the direction of the Obama White House and he said at the time that the change to the status of the internet service providers was a mistake.
Pai spoke on “The Future of Internet Freedom” at Washington’s museum of journalism, the Newseum, when he outlined his intention. Pai notably said that he intends the whole process of the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to be handled in the open, with public hearings and open discussions, starting with the release of a formal “Notice of Proposed Rule Making” on April 27. He said that his proposal would go through a public comment period starting with an FCC meeting in May.
The process Pai outlined is in contrast to the procedures typically followed by Wheeler who was known for handling much of the FCC’s business in secret and only making the decisions public after the commission had voted on them. Pai had been opposed to such secret meetings and closed discussions during his time as a commissioner. Shortly after being appointed Chairman Pai announced that the days of secrecy were over.
In his speech, Pai decried the interference by the White House in the operations of an independent agency and that before the February 2015 Title II decision the internet was regulated under a set of rules developed in the Clinton Administration and approved by a Republication Congress that called for a light touch in terms of regulation.
“The Internet is the greatest free-market success story in history,” Pai said. “And this is in large part due to a landmark decision made by President Clinton and a Republican Congress in the Telecommunications Act of 1996.
In that legislation, Pai said, they decided on a bipartisan basis that it was the policy of the United States ” ‘to preserve the vibrant and competitive free market that presently exists for the Internet . . . unfettered by Federal or State regulation.’ ”
Pai said that the light regulatory touch was what resulted in the massive growth of the internet that supported the birth of many new companies not the least of which were Google, Facebook and Netflix. “Under this framework, the private sector invested about $1.5 trillion to build the networks that gave people high-speed access to the Internet. And under this framework, consumers benefited from unparalleled innovation,” Pai said.
Pai then asserted that once the internet was moved under Title II investment dropped, ISPs, especially smaller ones, had trouble getting the financing to expand and as a result, Americans were getting slower, more expensive broadband than the rest of the world.
Those of you who were reading this column back in 2014 will remember the lobbying battle between diametrically opposed groups that both said they were fighting to preserve net neutrality. The battle was really over about how net neutrality would be implemented and preserved with both sides claiming that the other side would bring about the ruin of the internet.
In the end both sides lost because the FCC voted to regulate the Internet under a set of ancient regulations designed for the days of circuit switched networks using copper wire and mechanical switches. This fit the real world of the internet about as well as high-heeled boots on a fish.
As a result all stakeholders in the decision, consumers, ISPs, broadband service providers and even U.S. lawmakers got a bad deal. This is why the investment into the internet fell and why that portion of the economy attributable to communications, the internet and ecommerce failed to grow as fast as it should have. Pai said there have been losses of 5.6 percent in capital investment totaling $3.6 Billion in the two years since Title II regulation of the internet went into effect.
Predictably, interest groups from all sides are chiming in on Pai’s announcement. The group Fight for the Future has announced a fundraising campaign to save net neutrality. Another group, Free Press (which actually has nothing to do with news media) is predicting the end of net neutrality because ISPs are companies and those companies are a threat to freedom. Craig Aaron, president and CEO of Free Press, has managed to conflate police brutality and videos of children being killed to the FCC action.
Meanwhile, other interest groups fighting for net neutrality are saluting Pai’s speech and are urging the FCC to immediately decree the end of the Title II regulations. They are, of course, opposed to views of other net neutrality groups.
For his part, Pai has declined to initiate private deliberations on a new internet regulatory policy that will result in another secret party line vote that released to the news media with scant public comment as an accomplished fact. He says he will do the whole process in public and this is apparently appalling to people who believe that Pai is bent on permanently killing off the last vestige of net neutrality.
However, as a working journalist, I fail to see what’s wrong with a totally open decision-making process. Every side will have a chance to make its case before the FCC and they will see if the Commission is playing fast and loose with the rules, like Tom Wheeler did when he violated large portions of the Administrative Procedures Act in forcing the change to Title II.
Watching the FCC do its job of making new communications policy in public will be downright refreshing at the very least. It might even be democratic.