Democratic lawmakers are not happy with President Trump's top telecom regulator, former Verizon lawyer Ajit Pai. And that's putting it mildly.
On Tuesday, Pai was joined by fellow Federal Communications Commission officials for a feisty oversight hearing before the House telecom subcommittee. Several Democrats took the opportunity to blast Pai for a series of "anti-consumer" initiatives undertaken by the FCC in the six months since Trump tapped Pai to lead the agency.
"To date, most of the FCC's actions have ignored the needs of consumers," said Rep. Frank Pallone, the New Jersey Democrat. "Too often, when given the choice, this FCC has sided with large corporations to the detriment of hardworking Americans."
Democrats are particularly irate over Pai's plan to dismantle FCC rules protecting net neutrality, the principle that all internet content should be equally accessible to consumers. They're also angry about Pai's efforts to undermine a key program designed to help low-income people afford internet access, and his refusal to boost competition in the market for business broadband. And that's just for starters.
"Chairman Pai, in the time you have been the head of this agency, we have seen an agenda that is anti-consumer, anti-small business, anti-competition, anti-innovation, and anti-opportunity," said Rep. Mike Doyle, the Pennsylvania Democrat. "I am deeply concerned that the FCC is on the wrong path, a path that will hurt small businesses, regular people, and some of the most innovative sectors of our economy."
In 2015, after a series of legal defeats, the Obama-era FCC reclassified internet service providers (ISPs) as "common carriers" under Title II of the Communications Act. This move gave the agency the legal authority to enforce net neutrality by prohibiting ISPs from blocking, throttling, or otherwise discriminating against legal online content. The FCC also barred ISPs from selling access to internet "fast lanes" to deep-pocketed content companies, potentially giving them an advantage over startups or other institutions.
Open internet advocates say that the FCC rules, grounded in Title II authority, are necessary to ensure that the internet remains a vibrant and equally accessible platform for innovation, economic growth, and free speech. ISPs like Comcast, AT&T, and Verizon—along with their GOP allies—bitterly oppose Title II, which they call an egregious example of regulatory overreach.
"Republicans have often espoused support for the open internet while attacking and dismantling the safeguards that make it a reality."
FCC chairman Pai claims to support a "free and open internet," but nevertheless is racing forward with a plan to reverse the 2015 Title II classification—a move that open internet advocates say would kill the FCC's ability to ensure net neutrality. Pai claims that the Title II order has stifled broadband capital investment, an assertion that is vigorously disputed by open internet advocates.
During Tuesday's hearing, Rep. Marsha Blackburn, the Tennessee Republican who chairs the telecom subcommittee, declared that "Republicans have always supported a free and open internet." This despite the fact that she has repeatedly pushed legislation to reverse the FCC's open internet rules, and earlier this year took the lead in killing FCC broadband privacy rules that are grounded in the agency's 2015 Open Internet order.
Matt Wood, policy director at DC-based public interest group Free Press Action Fund, ridiculed Blackburn's statement. (It's worth noting that Blackburn has received vast amounts of campaign cash from the broadband industry during her tenure in Congress.)
"Republicans have often espoused support for the open internet while attacking and dismantling the safeguards that make it a reality," Wood told Motherboard. "They talk out of both sides of their mouth on this—which is nothing new for Rep. Blackburn, the member that killed the FCC's broadband privacy rules before dropping her own privacy bill. She's not fooling anyone."
Separately on Tuesday, Rep. Greg Walden, the Oregon Republican who chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee, announced that he has asked the CEOs of Facebook, Comcast, AT&T, Verizon, and Google-parent Alphabet to appear at a Sept. 7 Capitol Hill hearing designed to explore a net neutrality compromise.
Open internet advocates are skeptical that Republicans are serious about legislation that will truly protect net neutrality, with Wood of Free Press saying in a recent statement that "it's hard to take seriously any talk of a net neutrality bill from the current congressional majority. They can't decide if they want to toss the rules away or supposedly fix them. But the truth is there's nothing to fix. The present legal framework is working for everyone in the internet economy."
Hours after Walden's announcement, Democrats Doyle and Pallone blasted the Republican for failing to invite "consumers, small businesses, entrepreneurs, political organizers, public interest groups, and people looking for work." They demanded that the hearing "include sufficient witnesses to represent the diversity of real people who will be affected by the FCC's efforts to roll back net neutrality."