If there’s one thing you can expect from Ajit Pai now that he’s been confirmed as the Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission is that many of the power grabs by former Chairman Tom Wheeler will be rolled back.
One of the first targets of a regulatory rollback is sure to be the reclassification of broadband service to public utility status rather than as an information service, which is what it was originally.
Wheeler’s move effectively took the Federal Trade Commission out of the picture by blocking its statutory role controlling things like privacy and fraud, and made it part of his vision for the expanded powers of the FCC. Now it's like Pai and the other Republican commissioners will find a way to overturn Wheeler's power grab.
The move to reclassify internet services under Title II of the Communications Act did more than just force a specific set of net neutrality rules on ISPs. The change also emboldened the FCC to issue privacy regulations in direct contravention of its stated intent to forbear from rules other than network neutrality. There were strong indications that the FCC was on the road to impose rate regulations on Internet Service Providers as well, just as it did with Business Data Services.
Wheeler was also known for a move to a partisan FCC. In the years preceding his term, the FCC was known for bipartisan agreements and for gaining consensus among the commissioners. In fact, two of the current commissioners, Pai and Mignon Clyburn were noted for their efforts to build a consensus among representatives of both parties, but when Wheeler took office, those efforts at consensus ended.
“Wheeler’s management style didn’t seem to favor collaboration,” said Larry Downes, project director at the Georgetown Center for Business and Public Policy. “It was clear that in November 2014 he was put under pressure from the White house to abandon the Verizon blueprint and go to reclassification,” Downes explained.
The Verizon blueprint was the path put forward by the courts following Verizon’s appeal of a previous set of net neutrality requirements.
Had Wheeler not been pushed down the reclassification path, Congress was poised to pass net neutrality legislation that would accomplish the ends that most neutrality backers favored. But a number of observers including Downes and many others, suggested that the real reason for reclassification under Title II was to allow the Internet to fall under federal control.
But the question that most people seem to be concerned about is net neutrality and the many reports that Pai is ideologically is opposed to it. But a look at his public statements and votes over the years doesn't support that view.
Indeed, Pai has said that he’s in favor of net neutrality, but he has said he’s opposed to reclassification as a way to accomplish net neutrality. It’s worth noting that Pai is particularly passionate about finding ways to provide broadband internet access to as many people in the US as possible—a principle that seemed to be on the back burner with Wheeler.
“One of the most significant things that I’ve seen during my time here is that there is a digital divide in this country—between those who can use from cutting-edge communications services and those who do not,” Pai said in his remarks to the FCC after being named Chairman.
“I believe one of our core priorities going forward should be to close that divide—to do what’s necessary to help the private sector build networks, send signals and distribute information to American consumers, regardless of race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, or anything else. We must work to bring the benefits of the digital age to all Americans.”
Part of the problem with the government acting to help provide service in underserved regions of the country, particularly in rural areas, is that doing so may violate some of the strict interpretations of net neutrality.
That is because such efforts would by default favor certain classes of users, such at those living in remote areas. Likewise, Pai has said that he’s not opposed to allowing users to pay for expanded types of service, although he has spoken out against allowing Internet Service Providers to block or slow service.
So the question must be, does Pai represent the end of net neutrality or just the end of neutrality as Wheeler and the White House envisioned in 2014? To me, it appears to be the latter.
Perhaps with the nomination of Ajit Pai is Chairman, we can see a return to consensus at the FCC rather than the attempts during Wheeler’s term to ram his positions down the throats of the other commissioners, which resulted in frequent 3–2 votes along party lines, which became the norm during Wheeler’s time as chairman.
We might even see the FCC regain its status as an expert agency rather than its recent position as a political arm of the White House that promotes its own political and social agenda on the industry and internet users.