FCC Chair Asked Can Anything Stop Net Neutrality Rollback?

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Ajit Pai ignoring evidence that net neutrality helps businesses, lawmaker says.

Ajit Pai ignoring evidence that net neutrality helps businesses, lawmaker says.

US Rep. Michael Doyle (D-Penn.) yesterday accused Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai of pursuing an agenda that harms both consumers and small businesses.

“Chairman Pai, in the time that you have been head of this agency, we have seen an agenda that is anti-consumer, anti-small business, anti-competition, anti-innovation, and anti-opportunity,” Doyle said during an FCC oversight hearing held by the House Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Communications and Technology.

Doyle pointed to several of Pai’s decisions, including ending a net neutrality investigation into what Doyle called “anti-competitive zero-rating practices” by AT&T and Verizon Wireless. Doyle criticized Pai moves that made it more difficult for poor people to get broadband subsidies and made it easier for large TV broadcasters to merge. The latter decision would “enable an unprecedented merger between Sinclair and Tribune that would give the combined entity a foothold in nearly 80 percent of American households,” Doyle said. (The exact figure is 72 percent of US households with TVs.)

Doyle also criticized Pai for a decision that eliminated price caps in much of the business broadband market by imposing a new standard that deems certain local markets competitive even when there’s only one broadband provider.

“Your order concluded that a market is competitive if it is served by one provider, with the possibility another one might enter at some point,” Doyle said. “I don’t see how this makes sense.”

Can any evidence stop net neutrality rollback?

Doyle also questioned whether anything would stop Pai’s Republican majority from rolling back net neutrality rules and the classification of ISPs as common carriers.

The FCC has received more than 12 million comments on its proposed net neutrality rollback, but not all comments count the same. Pai has previously said that the “raw number” of comments supporting or opposing net neutrality rules “is not as important as the substantive comments that are in the record.”

Doyle asked Pai, “what kind of comment would cause you to change your mind?” Pai responded, “economic analysis that shows credibly that there’s infrastructure investment that has increased dramatically” since the net neutrality rules went into effect. Pai said he also would take evidence seriously if it shows that the overall economy would suffer from a net neutrality rollback or that startups and consumers can’t thrive without the existing rules.

Advocacy group Free Press has presented analysis that it says shows a 5-percent increase in ISP investment during the two-year period after the net neutrality vote and capital increases at 16 of 24 publicly traded ISPs. But Pai has expressed disdain for Free Press, calling it “a spectacularly misnamed Beltway lobbying group” that demands government control over the Internet. Meanwhile, different studies that showed investment declines have been cited favorably by Pai.

Doyle yesterday also asked FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly, a Republican, if anything would stop him from voting for a net neutrality rollback.

“I’m looking to the record to see if anything changes my mind. I’m looking for substantive comments,” O’Rielly said.

When asked for an example of a “substantive comment,” O’Rielly said, “economic analysis and real evidence of harm to consumers vs. some of the material I’ve been getting.” While there are millions of comments, “many of those comments are empty and devoid of any value,” O’Rielly said.

Doyle urged Pai and O’Rielly to closely examine the comments.

Pai’s investment claims questioned

While Pai argues that net neutrality rules have lowered network investment, Doyle disputed these claims. “Publicly traded companies are required by law to tell investors the risks to their companies. No publicly traded ISP has made such a claim,” Doyle said.

Moreover, Doyle accused Pai of ignoring investment by companies that offer online services and need access to the networks run by ISPs:

You only seem to talk about it in relation to ISP investment. I’m concerned that maybe you just don’t get it: the Internet isn’t just an ISP’s connection to the consumer, it’s a vast array of networks, services, and applications. Ignoring the rest of the ecosystem is to ignore the part of the Internet that is the most vibrant and innovative. I’m 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.

Doyle pressed Pai on investments made by websites. “You talk about broadband investment by ISPs alone as an indication of the health of the marketplace,” Doyle said. “Why aren’t you talking about edge providers, the investments they’re making, the jobs that they’re creating?”

Pai said he focuses primarily on investment by ISPs because millions of Americans “are on the wrong side of the divide,” without access to fast Internet service. Lacking broadband today can mean not having access to education and healthcare, Pai said.

“Those core investments in the network are critical if every American is going to be able to thrive in the twenty-first century,” Pai told Doyle.

Pai praised by Republicans

Pai’s agenda of taking a “weed whacker” to FCC regulations was cheered on by Republicans. “Chairman Pai, we hope you’re keeping that weed whacker handy because it has a lot of work to do,” Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), chair of the Subcommittee on Communications and Technology, said during the hearing.

In 2015, Blackburn filed legislation titled the “Internet Freedom Act” that would have overturned the network neutrality rules. Yesterday, she criticized anyone who would claim that Republicans don’t support “the open Internet.”

“Let me be clear: Republicans have always supported a free and open Internet,” Blackburn said. “Let’s not have any misunderstanding on that issue. We must move past the partisan rhetoric.”

Blackburn said the FCC’s use of its Title II common carrier authority to impose net neutrality rules reduced network investment, “will lead to rate regulation, and has generated tremendous uncertainty.” (In reality, the FCC did not use Title II to impose rate regulation or price caps on consumer broadband.)

“It is important for consumers not to conflate the harmful Title II reclassification with the net neutrality principles as some would suggest,” Blackburn said.

The Commerce Committee’s Republican leadership yesterday asked Facebook, Alphabet, Amazon, and Netflix to appear for a hearing on net neutrality on September 7. The biggest ISPs were also invited. Democrats on the committee asked Republicans to also invite smaller companies and other groups.

“Although you stated the [September 7] hearing was an inquiry into the ‘Internet ecosystem,’ you once again failed to recognize how important the Internet is for consumers, small businesses, entrepreneurs, political organizers, public interest groups, and people looking for work,” Doyle and Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-N.J.) said in a letter to Republican committee leaders after yesterday’s hearing.

As of now, the companies invited to the hearing have “a combined market capitalization of nearly $2.5 trillion,” Doyle and Pallone wrote.

 

  • Patsy Lowe

    Kudos to Representative Doyle.

  • mwildfire

    Before and during the Civil War, many people spoke passionately about preserving “freedom”–meaning the freedom to keep slaves. When Republicans talk about a free internet, they mean a marketplace that’s wide-open and free for huge corporations to exploit, manipulate, strangle, and use for setting up tollbooths in. Many of us are anti-freedom, since we want to impose all sorts of “government regulation” to prevent this, on behalf of the ordinary people and small businesses that are beneath Pai’s concern (except when he pretends that ending net neutrality will help the poor over the digital divide–why would empowering the big telecoms do that?)