On Monday, President Trump selected Ajit Pai, the Federal Communications Commission’s senior Republican member, to head the FCC, and the mainstream media lost its collective mind.
Various media outlets are reporting that Pai wants to “destroy” net neutrality, is an “obstructionist,” is “critical of basic privacy online,” and plans to “dismantle net neutrality.”
Nothing could be further from the truth.
To fully understand what Pai’s stance on “net neutrality” actually is, we need to clear up the confusion that has been surrounding the term for years.
Net Neutrality vs. Net Neutrality
In November 2014, net neutrality became the subject of much heated debate among politicians and the public after then-president Barack Obama announced that he wanted to “keep the internet free and open” for everyone.
Obama wanted to push the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to implement rules for net neutrality, and in his plea he used terms like “fairness” and “freedom”. He expressed the need for more government control to ensure equal Internet access for everyone.
He claimed that abandoning the principles of net neutrality “would threaten to end the Internet as we know it.”
Whenever a politician talks about “more government control”, “fairness,” and “rules,” I become skeptical, which I think is a healthy and rational response, considering how much the US government has turned into a massive control freak.
It turns out, my skepticism was warranted.
Obama (perhaps intentionally, perhaps not) misrepresented what “net neutrality” actually is versus what reclassifying consumer broadband service under Title II of the Telecommunications Act (which is what he pushed) actually is.
If you’d like an in-depth explanation of the difference between true net neutrality and what Obama and former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler meant by “net neutrality”, please read Net Neutrality: What it Really Means, and How it Could Impact You.
For our purposes here, this image sums up the difference perfectly:
In February 2015, the FCC voted YES (3-2, with Democrats voting in favor and Republicans voting against) to Wheeler’s plan to “enforce net neutrality rules”, reported ArsTechnica:
The Federal Communications Commission today voted to enforce net neutrality rules that prevent Internet providers—including cellular carriers—from blocking or throttling traffic or giving priority to Web services in exchange for payment.
The most controversial part of the FCC’s decision reclassifies fixed and mobile broadband as a telecommunications service, with providers to be regulated as common carriers under Title II of the Communications Act. This decision brings Internet service under the same type of regulatory regime faced by wireline telephone service and mobile voice, though the FCC is forbearing from stricter utility-style rules that it could also apply under Title II.
Back then, Pai, who was a Republican FCC commissioner, said the agency was replacing Internet freedom with “government control,”and that the FCC was seizing unilateral authority to regulate Internet conduct and determine what service plans are available to consumers:
“The Internet is not broken. There is no problem for the government to solve,” he said.
Pai explained that an Internet provider could “find itself in the FCC’s crosshairs” if it doesn’t want to offer unlimited data plans. He also said that the FCC is only deferring a decision on new Universal Service fees for broadband rather than ruling them out entirely. Universal Service fees, which fund telecommunications projects in rural and under-served regions, currently apply to phone bills but not Internet service.
In June 2016, the broadband industry lost a lawsuit it filed in an attempt to overturn the FCC’s rules and reclassification of ISPs as common carriers.
What does Ajit Pai really think about net neutrality?
First, it is important to understand what Pai does support, as Larry Downes explains in Why Is The Media Smearing New FCC Chair Ajit Pai As The Enemy Of Net Neutrality?:
Pai has consistently supported the basic principles of net neutrality—the common sense view that ISPs should not be allowed to block specific legal websites or devices, intentionally slow some traffic to benefit others, misrepresent their network management practices or otherwise behave in conduct long-considered anti-competitive in American law.
Downes goes on to explain that Pai’s concerns revolve around the decision to ground the FCC’s authority to enforce net neutrality rules in public utility regulations that were issued in the 1930’s:
Indeed, the 2015 order devotes almost no discussion to the rules at all. It is one part net neutrality, and 99 parts public utility—including a return to the Ma Bell days of regulated rates, services, and artificial barriers to entry.
Some of the concerns Pai expressed over the reclassification back in 2015 have actually happened:
Though the Commission promised repeatedly in the 2015 order to limit its new public utility powers solely to ensure net neutrality rules could be enforced, that forbearance was short lived.
In the final months of the Wheeler FCC, the Commission rushed through orders re-regulating rates for enterprise data services, subjecting ISPs (and only ISPs) to a highly-restrictive privacy regime that upends the model of ad-supported free content, and flirted with banning free and sponsored mobile data services that consumers actually want.
So, why are so many “news” outlets reporting that Pai wants to “destroy” net neutrality?
The near-universal misreporting of Pai’s true views on net neutrality is in part an example of the kind of sloppy reporting of the kind Nate Silver, reflecting on coverage of the Presidential campaign, recently characterized as “including pervasive groupthink among media elites, an unhealthy obsession with the insider’s view of politics, a lack of analytical rigor, a failure to appreciate uncertainty, a sluggishness to self-correct when new evidence contradicts pre-existing beliefs, and a narrow viewpoint that lacks perspective from the longer arc of American history.”
These sources may not be misleading the public by accident. “The desperate conflation of net neutrality rules with the FCC’s decision to impose public utility treatment on all ISPs is intentional,” Downes says.
Net neutrality is being used as a wedge to push for public utility treatment for the Internet. It isn’t about true net neutrality – it is about reclassifying broadband service under Title II of the Communications Act, which allows the FCC sole authority to regulate ISPs as an essential public utility.
In the past, Title II advocates have had opportunities to pass net neutrality rules without reclassifying ISPs as utilities, but that wasn’t enough for them.
Now that Trump is President and has appointed Pai – who is an outspoken supporter of limited government, a free-market approach, and favors a more hands-off role for the agency – as chair, expect to hear more hysteria about how “net neutrality” is going to be destroyed.
In a December 2016 speech, Pai said,
In the months to come, we also need to remove outdated and unnecessary regulations. As anyone who has attempted to take a quick spin through Part 47 of the Code of Federal Regulations could tell you, the regulatory underbrush at the FCC is thick. We need to fire up the weed whacker and remove those rules that are holding back investment, innovation, and job creation.
And, in a September 2016 speech, Pai outlined his agenda, which calls for less government control of the internet, tax breaks for startups and rural broadband providers, using money from wireless spectrum auctions to expand wireless access in rural areas, “dig once” policies that would ensure that broadband conduits are installed as part of all road and highway construction projects, and regulations to make it easier for new internet service providers to access existing utility poles.
Pai explained that one of the reasons there are some problems with broadband deployment in the US is that government at all levels often makes the task harder than it has to be.
Pai said he plans to ask Congress to create Gigabit Opportunity Zones:
The concept is simple. Provide financial incentives for Internet service providers to deploy gigabit broadband services in low-income neighborhoods. Incentivize local governments to make it easy for ISPs to deploy these networks. And offer tax incentives for startups of all kinds in order to take advantage of these networks and create jobs in these areas.
All of the regulations, laws, and other obstacles that governments currently impose are hindering competition. Removing those obstacles would encourage competitive entry for new providers -which would mean faster, better, and cheaper broadband for consumers.
Lily Dane is a staff writer for The Daily Sheeple. Her goal is to help people to “Wake the Flock Up!”