Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Ajit Pai said in a speech Wednesday that a Democratic-led FCC during the final two years of former President Barack Obama’s tenure almost oversaw the demise of a “free and open” internet.
Pai outlined the history of internet policy, saying that for almost two decades the FCC respected a “competitive free market” for the internet, one that was “unfettered by Federal or State regulation.” He applauded former President Bill Clinton and a Republican Congress for passing the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which permitted innovation in such a nascent industry to flourish.
Pai says that the course completely and suddenly changed two years ago.
“The FCC, on a party-line vote, decided to impose a set of heavy-handed regulations upon the Internet,” Pai said in the speech titled The Future of Internet Freedom. “It decided to slap an old regulatory framework called ‘Title II’—originally designed in the 1930s for the Ma Bell telephone monopoly—upon thousands of internet service providers (ISPs), big and small. It decided to put the federal government at the center of the Internet.” (RELATED: Trump Nomination Could Spell Disaster For Government’s Internet Takeover)
Through Title II, the Obama administration pushed for net neutrality — the principle that all internet traffic should be treated equally, which some (like former FCC chairman and Democrat Tom Wheeler) argue gives small ISPs the same chance of succeeding in the marketplace.
Pai though, argues, that net neutrality hurts consumers because it would disallow companies from offering special deals appreciated by all classes of society. AT&T, for example, was offering free services under its “DirecTV Now” feature, but the Obama administration’s FCC sent a letter to the company telling it to stop the practice since it violated net neutrality rules. The FCC asserted that AT&T cannot offer free data for its own services, while charging for data used on other video-streaming companies, namely Netflix and Hulu. (RELATED: Obama Admin Wants To Surrender US Control Over Internet To Global Bureaucracy)
Pai’s most underlying and constant point was to rid of Title II, an archaic statute brought back to life from the trust-busting days of the early twentieth century. Pai recalls warning the rest of the FCC of the dangers of Title II (which buttresses net neutrality) when he was a non-chairman commissioner, arguing that it would essentially make the internet a public utility, and thus government regulated.
He blames politics, not “law or the facts,” on the abrupt 180 in policy preference.
“Days after a disappointing 2014 midterm election, and in order to energize a dispirited base, the White House released an extraordinary YouTube video instructing the FCC to implement Title II regulations. This was a transparent attempt to compromise the agency’s independence. And it worked.”
Pai argues that the FCC was never headed in this direction toward heavy-handed regulation, and was “dragged kicking and screaming onto that path.”
After relaying his historical perspective to the audience, Pai pivoted towards his vision for the FCC’s future.
The FCC chair says he wants to “return to the light-touch regulatory framework that served our nation so well during the Clinton Administration, the Bush Administration, and the first six years of the Obama Administration.”
The government controlling the internet with an iron fist, Pai claims, is dangerous to free speech, adding that the First Amendment explicitly says government is supposed to protect speech, not regulate it.
He compared such paternalistic sentiments to “when speakers are barred from college campuses” or “when members of the Federal Election Commission seek to restrict political speech and regulate online platforms like the Drudge Report.”
Corporations, like AT&T and Comcast, said they support Pai’s statements in emails sent to The Daily Caller News Foundation (TheDCNF).
“We applaud FCC Chairman Pai’s initiative to remove this stifling regulatory cloud over the internet,” AT&T Chairman & CEO Randall Stephenson said. “Businesses large and small will have a clearer path to invest more in our nation’s broadband infrastructure under Chairman Pai’s leadership.” (RELATED: AT&T CEO Bashes FCC, Says Net Neutrality Rules ‘Bad For The Industry’)
Dozens of other organizations also sent out statements to TheDCNF, commending Pai’s speech as a great return to the policies that helped bolster American commerce and free expression.
“Acting under the authority of the amorphous ‘good conduct’ rule, previous FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler declared war on wireless providers’ popular free data programs,” Randolph May, President of The Free State Foundation, a free market think tank, said in an official statement. “Thankfully, one of Chairman Ajit Pai’s first actions was to end this war.”
Not everyone is happy, though. A group of 800 startups and investors released a letter Wednesday morning prior to Pai’s speech, directly addressing the FCC chairman and voicing their concern for Pai’s intention to undo FCC’s relatively new rules.
“Without net neutrality, the incumbents who provide access to the Internet would be able to pick winners or losers in the market,” the letter spearheaded by U.S. venture capital firm Y Combinator wrote. “They could impede traffic from our services in order to favor their own services or established competitors. Or they could impose new tolls on us, inhibiting consumer choice.”
Pai, though, argues that small ISPs, like larger ones, were equally affected during the Title II era. He cited local companies in Arkansas and rural Illinois which, respectively, expressed their frustration of regulations hamstringing their operations and infrastructure investments.
Pai announced during the speech that he is not against rules in general, as there are relevant privacy concerns when dealing with the internet.
“Going forward, we cannot stick with regulations from the Great Depression meant to micromanage Ma Bell,” Pai explained. “Instead, we need rules that focus on growth and infrastructure investment, rules that expand high-speed Internet access everywhere and give Americans more online choice, faster speeds, and more innovation.”
He says rules would be better implemented and enforced under the Federal Trade Commission, which he argues was stripped of its authority to regulate when the broadband was deemed a public utility through the Title II order.
By repealing Title II, Pai asserts it will mean “the nation’s most expert and experienced privacy regulator will once again be a cop on the beat protecting Americans’ online privacy,” an approach reportedly embraced up until 2015.
“Do we want the government to control the internet?” Pai asked towards the end of his speech. “Or do we want to embrace the light-touch approach established by President Clinton and a Republican Congress in 1996 and repeatedly reaffirmed by Democratic and Republican FCCs alike?”
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