Open internet advocates and Democratic lawmakers are mounting a last-ditch effort to remove Federal Communications Commission chief Ajit Pai over his anti-net neutrality stance, just days before Pai is set to be approved by the Senate for a new term.
Since being elevated by President Trump to lead the FCC in January, Pai has become the bête noire of open internet advocates for a variety of anti-consumer actions, but none more so than his crusade to kill federal rules protecting net neutrality, the principle that all internet content should be equally accessible to consumers.
Pai has served at the FCC since 2012, and Senate Republicans have scheduled a vote on Monday to confirm him for another five-year term at the agency. Given the Republican majority in the Senate, Pai's reconfirmation appears likely, but the naysayers are nevertheless working furiously to prevent that from happening.
During a blistering floor speech on Thursday, Sen. Ron Wyden, the Oregon Democrat, portrayed Pai, a Republican former Verizon lawyer, as an industry stooge who has worked relentlessly to deliver gift after gift to the nation's largest broadband companies.
"Mr. Pai has a long track record of putting big cable before consumers, big corporations above small businesses, and pay-to-play over the free and open internet," Wyden wrote in a blog post accompanying his speech.
As of now, Senate Republicans appear to have the votes to push Pai over the top. But in a remarkable display of opposition, some 41 Democratic senators on Thursday voted against a procedural step to advance Pai's reconfirmation, including Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota, and Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii.
Net neutrality is the principle that broadband giants like Comcast, AT&T and Verizon shouldn't be able to favor their own internet services, discriminate against rival content, or create pay-to-play online "fast lanes" for deep-pocketed partners. Open internet advocates argue that the FCC's Obama-era net neutrality rules are necessary to ensure that the internet remains a vibrant platform for tech startups, economic growth, civic empowerment, and free speech.
The nation's largest broadband companies insist that they favor the concept of net neutrality and would never do anything to harm the open internet. And yet they've been waging a years-long legal and lobbying campaign to kill the FCC rules that protect net neutrality, claiming the policy is an egregious regulatory overreach. (On Thursday, AT&T and other broadband giants asked the Supreme Court to overturn the FCC's rules.)
"Rehiring Pai to head the agency that oversees US communications policies would be a boon for the phone and cable companies he eagerly serves."
Free Press, a DC-based public interest group, has also launched a campaign to pressure the Senate to "fire Pai," citing his proposal to kill the FCC's net neutrality policy and other anti-consumer actions. But if reconfirmed, Pai is expected to try to ram through his plan to torpedo the FCC's net neutrality rules before the end of the year.
"Rehiring Pai to head the agency that oversees US communications policies would be a boon for the phone and cable companies he eagerly serves," Tim Karr, Free Press Senior Director of Strategy, wrote in a blog post. "But it would hurt everyone else who needs this agency to put our communications rights before the profits of monopoly-minded media giants."
A FCC spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the opposition to Pai's reconfirmation.
Pai's plan to nuke the FCC's net neutrality policy isn't the only action he's taken that has infuriated open internet advocates. For example, Pai has moved to undermine a key program that helps low-income people afford internet access, refused to boost competition in the market for business broadband, and supported a wildly unpopular Congressional action to kill FCC internet privacy protections and allow broadband companies to sell sensitive consumer data to the highest bidder.
Pai has also worked to undermine federal media ownership limits by reinstating an obsolete regulatory loophole that would allow TV broadcast station owners to gobble up smaller rivals, alarming opponents of media consolidation from across the political spectrum.
Pai has done all of these things in just eight months since he was tapped by Trump to lead the FCC. Imagine, Pai's critics warn, what he will be able to accomplish if he is given five more years running the agency. That's why open internet advocates are pulling out all the stops to pressure the Senate to oppose Pai's reconfirmation on Monday.
"Senators can choose a toothless FCC that will protect huge companies, allow them to further consolidate, charge higher prices with worsening service, and create a bigger disconnect between broadband haves and have-nots," Gigi Sohn, a leading tech policy advocate who served as Counselor to former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, wrote in a blog post this week.
"Or, they can vote for what the FCC is supposed to do: protect consumers, promote competition, and ensure access for all Americans, including the most vulnerable."