President Trump's top telecom regulator, Republican Ajit Pai, on Wednesday announced his intention to dismantle US rules protecting net neutrality, prompting howls of protest from open internet advocates who vowed to mobilize a grassroots movement to fight Pai's plan.
Net neutrality is the principle that internet service providers like Comcast, AT&T and Verizon can't favor their own online products or discriminate against rival services. It also means they can't sell access to internet "fast lanes" for deep-pocketed content companies. And it means they can't block or censor controversial viewpoints or objectionable content on their networks.
In 2015, after years of debate and legal wrangling, the Federal Communications Commission codified net neutrality by reclassifying broadband providers as "telecommunications services" under Title II of the Communications Act. This reclassification gave the FCC the legal authority to enforce its net neutrality rules—legal authority that was subsequently upheld in federal court.
Pai wants to reverse the FCC's Title II reclassification decision, he announced on Wednesday at a speech sponsored by the right-wing activist group FreedomWorks. Such an action, which would amount to a major gift to the broadband industry, would remove the FCC's authority to enforce strong net neutrality and other consumer protections.
Pai announced that he has circulated a proposal to the other two FCC commissioners, Republican Mike O'Rielly and Democrat Mignon Clyburn, to "reverse the mistake of Title II." The FCC, which is controlled by Republicans, will vote on the proposal at its May open meeting. A period of public comment will follow.
"Make no mistake about it," Pai declared. "This is a fight that we intend to wage and it is a fight that we are going to win."
Broadband giants like Comcast, AT&T and Verizon, oppose the FCC's net neutrality policy, because it prevents them from turning the internet into something like cable TV, with different price and service packages for premium content. And they've got a willing ally in Pai, a former Verizon lawyer who was selected to lead the FCC by Trump in January.
Public interest groups and open internet advocates responded to Pai's announcement with fury, and accused him of putting the interests of the broadband industry ahead of the interests of the American people.
"The FCC, Congress, and President Trump are risking the wrath of millions of Americans."
"Chairman Pai is kissing the ring of the Big Money lobbyists who too often call the shots in the Trump Administration," former FCC commissioner Michael Copps, a longtime net neutrality champion who now serves as a special advisor at public interest group Common Cause, said in a statement. "The FCC, Congress, and President Trump are risking the wrath of millions of Americans who depend daily on affordable access to the open internet."
David Segal, executive director at advocacy group Demand Progress, said that his group will oppose any attempt to weaken the FCC net neutrality protections.
"Today's announcement from President Trump's FCC chair Ajit Pai is outrageous, but not surprising," David Segal, executive director at advocacy group Demand Progress, said in a statement. "Demand Progress and our two million members will fight Pai's effort to dismantle net neutrality every step of the way, including a push to help drive over one million grassroots actions in opposition to his plan in the coming weeks."
Not surprisingly the nation's largest broadband giants and their lobbyists responded to Pai's proposal with barely contained glee.
"Restoring the FCC's traditional bipartisan 'light-touch' approach will re-establish a better framework to advance consumer protection and to support the continued growth and expansion of internet networks throughout America," Michael Powell, a former Republican FCC Chairman who is now the broadband industry's top lobbyist as President and CEO of NCTA – The Internet & Television Association.
Pai claims to support a "free and open internet." But notably absent from Pai's speech was any indication of how he intends to ensure internet freedom and openness in lieu of the FCC's Title II net neutrality protections. Some tech policy experts believe that Pai will eventually propose allowing broadband giants like Comcast, AT&T and Verizon to make voluntary, non-binding open internet commitments that would be unenforceable by the FCC.
"Nobody should be fooled by Chairman Pai's rhetoric—he never has, and never will, support real net neutrality," Gigi Sohn, who served as a top counselor to former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler during the agency's Title II process, said in a statement. "What he does support is a radical abdication of the FCC's responsibility to protect consumers and competition."
"Whatever 'replacements' Pai will eventually propose after the current net neutrality rules are repealed will be wholly inadequate to protect consumers and innovators," Sohn added. "So it's no surprise he didn't discuss that in his speech. So-called voluntary commitments are nothing more than empty promises that can be changed at anytime."
In 2014, four million people filed public comments with the FCC, as part of a successful campaign to convince the agency to approve strong net neutrality rules. Open internet advocates hope to see an even greater uprising now, in defense of those safeguards, said Matt Wood, policy director at DC-based public interest group Free Press. "We need all those people—and millions more—to speak up now to defend these fundamental protections as they come under attack during the Trump presidency."