By Kelly Hawes
Ajit Pai, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, wants to scrap the so-called “net neutrality” rules put in place under the Obama administration.
“Under my proposal, the federal government will stop micromanaging the internet,” Pai said in a statement announcing his plan. “Instead, the FCC would simply require internet service providers to be transparent about their practices so that consumers can buy the service plan that’s best for them.”
To hear him tell it, Pai is the Lone Ranger.
“Today, I’m proposing to repeal the heavy-handed internet regulations imposed by the Obama administration and to return to the light-touch framework under which the internet developed and thrived before 2015,” he tweeted on the day of the announcement.
In pursuing his plan, Pai hopes to ride to the rescue of companies like Verizon and AT&T. That’s not surprising, I suppose, given that Pai previously worked for Verizon.
Not everyone agrees with Pai’s plan, of course. Online companies like Google and Facebook say repealing these rules would allow telecom companies to play favorites by charging customers for accessing some sites or by slowing speeds to others.
Small online companies fear that if the restrictions are lifted, telecom companies will force them to pay more for the faster connections. They say only the largest companies will be able to compete in such an environment.
Supporters of net neutrality, though, say the real losers will be the same consumers Pai claims he’s trying to help. They say fans of Netflix, for example, might see their costs go up if they want to keep the fast connections they’ll need to stream their favorite shows.
Pai claims the harm these rules were drafted to stop was merely theoretical. He says consumers might actually benefit if internet service companies were able to experiment with new business models that might help them compete with companies like Netflix, Google and Facebook. Net neutrality, he said, has “depressed investment in building and expanding broadband networks and deterred innovation.”
This fight is sure to heat up in the coming weeks as the commission is scheduled to vote on the proposed change Dec. 14. Of course, the plan will almost certainly win approval, and that’s when the real fight will begin.
Tim Wu, a law professor at Columbia University, wrote a column for the New York Times arguing Pai’s plan would likely fail in court.
“The problem for Mr. Pai is that government agencies are not free to abruptly reverse longstanding rules … without good reason,” he wrote. “A mere change in FCC ideology isn’t enough. As the Supreme Court has said, a federal agency must ‘examine the relevant data and articulate a satisfactory explanation for its action.’” Wu insists the rules Pai is seeking to toss out didn’t start with the Obama administration. They go back a dozen years to an FCC ruling against a small North Carolina phone company named Madison River. The company had been preventing customers from making calls using the internet phone company Vonage. Consumers complained, and the FCC agreed, fining the company and forcing it to stop blocking those calls.
That ruling, Wu said, was the beginning of net neutrality, and it’s the foundation on which the internet of today was built.
He predicts the courts will derail Pai’s effort.
“In our times, the judiciary has increasingly become a majoritarian force,” Wu wrote. “It alone, it seems, can prevent narrow, self-interested factions from getting the government to serve unseemly and even shameful ends. And so it falls to the judiciary to stop this latest travesty.”
We’ll see if he’s right. In the meantime, it can’t hurt to fire off a strongly worded email to the FCC.
Kelly Hawes is a columnist for CNHI newspapers in Indiana. Send comments to [email protected].