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Trump’s Reported Pick to Run the FCC, Ajit Pai, Wants to Kill Net Neutrality

The former Verizon lawyer wants to take a “weed whacker” to net neutrality.

by Sam Gustin
Jan 20 2017, 8:53pm

Image: Energy & Commerce/Flickr

President Donald J. Trump has chosen Republican Ajit Pai to lead the Federal Communications Commission, according to Politico, in a move that lays the groundwork for a broad rollback of consumer protections at the nation's top telecom regulatory agency.

Pai, who has served as a Republican FCC commissioner since 2012, is a fierce critic of the FCC's policy protecting net neutrality, the principle that all internet content should be equally accessible to consumers.

During a speech last month at the Free State Foundation, a right-wing think tank, Pai vowed to take a "weed whacker" to the FCC's policy, along with a host of other pro-consumer initiatives that he opposes.

In a cruel irony, Pai is likely to take the lead in rolling back a policy that is strongly supported by the very man who first nominated him to become a FCC commissioner—none other than former President Barack Obama.

A 44-year-old Harvard and University of Chicago-educated lawyer, Pai has built a reputation at the FCC as an outspoken critic of his own agency. Over the last several years, he repeatedly accused the FCC's Democratic majority under former chairman Tom Wheeler of overstepping the agency's regulatory authority, and even violating federal law.

Trump's reported decision to elevate Pai to lead the FCC indicates that the new administration is wasting little time before moving to put a conservative, anti-regulatory stamp on an agency with broad authority over the nation's cable, phone, and satellite companies.

"During the Trump Administration, we will shift from playing defense at the FCC to going on offense."

"I'm optimistic that last month's election will prove to be an inflection point—and that during the Trump Administration, we will shift from playing defense at the FCC to going on offense," Pai told the Free State Foundation audience last month.

Pai, who worked as Associate General Counsel at telecom titan Verizon earlier in his career, is viewed by policy experts as a close ally of broadband giants like Comcast, AT&T, as well as his former employer. He is one of two Republicans who now hold a majority at the FCC, following the departure of Wheeler and his Democratic colleague Jessica Rosenworcel earlier this month.

In recent years, Pai repeatedly battled Wheeler over the FCC's net neutrality policy, which prohibits corporate giants like Comcast, AT&T, and Verizon from creating online fast lanes for deep-pocketed content companies, or favoring their own services at the expense of rivals. Broadband industry lobbyists, and their GOP allies like Pai, say the rules have stifled investment, but public interest advocates vehemently deny that assertion.

On the day in 2015 that the FCC issued its Open Internet order enshrining net neutrality, Pai declared that the agency's action "imposes intrusive government regulations that won't work to solve a problem that doesn't exist using legal authority the FCC doesn't have."

Despite that assertion, the FCC net neutrality policy was upheld as legal last June by the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit. But with Republicans now in control of the FCC, Pai's prediction that the policy's "days are numbered" may very well come true.

During his final speech last week, outgoing FCC Chairman Wheeler warned that GOP efforts to weaken or kill the net neutrality policy will harm consumers, stifle online innovation, and threaten broadband industry competition.

"To take those protections away at the request of a handful of ISPs threatens any innovation that requires connectedness and with it the productivity gains, job creation, and international competitiveness required for America's economic growth," Wheeler said.

In addition to opposing net neutrality, Pai voted against a variety of pro-consumer FCC initiatives, including efforts to ensure broadband privacy protections, rein in exploitative prison phone costs, and encourage deployment of internet access around the country, especially in low-income, rural and underserved communities.

Pai, who has spent much of his career working in DC and is well-known on Capitol Hill, had been viewed as a front-runner to become interim FCC, at a minimum. He reportedly met with Trump in New York earlier this week.

Pai's term at the FCC expired in 2016, but he is technically allowed to continue to serve through the end of 2017. The Trump administration will have to renominate Pai for a second term at the agency before the end of this year. He will then have to be confirmed by the Senate, a likely outcome given his close ties to Senate Republicans who control that chamber.