F.C.C. Chairman Pushes Sweeping Changes to Net Neutrality Rules
By CECILIA KANG
Apr 26 2017
WASHINGTON — The chairman of the Federal Communications Commission on Wednesday outlined a sweeping plan to loosen the government’s oversight of high-speed internet providers, a rebuke of a landmark policy approved two years ago to ensure that all online content is treated the same by the companies that deliver broadband service to Americans.
The chairman, Ajit Pai, said high-speed internet service should no longer be treated like a public utility with strict rules, as it is now. Instead, he said, the industry should largely be left to police itself.
The plan is Mr. Pai’s most forceful action in his race to roll back rules that govern telecommunications, cable and broadcasting companies, which he says are harmful to business. But he is certain to face a contentious battle with the consumers and tech companies that rallied around the existing rules, which are meant to prevent broadband providers like AT&T and Comcast from giving special treatment to any streaming videos, news sites and other content.
“Two years ago, I warned that we were making a serious mistake,” Mr. Pai said at the Newseum in Washington, where he laid out the plan in a speech. “It’s basic economics. The more heavily you regulate something, the less of it you’re likely to get.”
His plan, though still vague on the details, is a sharp change from the approach taken by the last F.C.C. administration, which approved rules governing a concept known as net neutrality in 2015. The rules were intended to ensure an open internet, meaning that no content could be blocked by broadband providers and that the internet would not be divided into pay-to-play fast lanes for internet and media companies that can afford it and slow lanes for everyone else.
The policy was the signature telecom regulation of the Obama era. It classified broadband as a common carrier service akin to phones, which are subject to strong government oversight. President Obama made an unusual public push for the reclassification in a video message that was widely shared and appeared to embolden the last F.C.C. chairman, Tom Wheeler, to make the change.
The classification also led to the creation of broadband privacy rules in 2016 that made it harder to collect and sell browsing information and other user data. Last month, President Trump signed a bill overturning the broadband privacy regulations, which would have gone into effect at the end of the year.
In his speech on Wednesday, Mr. Pai said he would undo that classification.
Mr. Pai said he was generally supportive of the idea behind net neutrality but said the rules went too far and were not necessary for an open internet. The new plan could include only voluntary commitments by broadband companies. He said he would also seek public comment on how to preserve the basic principles of net neutrality — the prohibitions of blocking, throttling and paid priority for online traffic.
Mr. Pai has opposed the current rules for years, and he voted against them as a commissioner. Critics of his ideas for changing the rules say making any commitments only voluntary would pave the way for the creation of business practices that harm competition.
“It would put consumers at the mercy of phone and cable companies,” said Craig Aaron, president of the consumer advocacy group Free Press. “In a fantasy world, all would be fine with a pinkie swear not to interrupt pathways and portals to the internet despite a history of doing that.”
The new policy faces several hurdles before going into effect, including months of comments and revisions. But Republicans have a 2 to 1 majority on the commission, including Mr. Pai, so most proposals he puts up for a vote will generally be expected to pass.
Consumer groups and tech companies have warned of a legal challenge, however. The current net neutrality rules were affirmed by a federal appeals court, which could put an extra burden on Mr. Pai to justify his changes.