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FCC Chairman Misleads In Effort To Destroy Net Neutrality

Above Photo: Ethan Miller/Getty Image. Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai speaks during the 2017 NAB Show at the Las Vegas Convention Center on April 25, 2017 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Ajit Pai’s new proposal would eliminate rules that have broad popular support

It’s no surprise that Ajit Pai, the new chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, wants to gut net neutrality.

What is shocking is that the proposal he released last week could not only weaken the net neutrality rules, but get rid of them entirely. Pai’s proposal envisions even tearing up provisions that nearly everyone agrees on, like the one that bars internet providers from blocking access to particular sites and services.

“He’s abdicating the FCC’s role entirely in protecting consumers and competition,” said Gigi Sohn, a fellow at the Open Society Foundations who previously was a counsel to Pai’s predecessor, Tom Wheeler.

Pai, a former Verizon lawyer who has long supported big broadband providers, is no fan of net neutrality, the principle that internet providers should treat all traffic on their networks equally. He vociferously opposed the FCC’s move two years ago under Wheeler to enact strong Open Internet rules. And he’s made clear repeatedly since then that he would try to overturn those rules the first chance he got.

With a Republican majority now in control of the commission, he has that chance. Still, the proposal he put forward was breathtaking.

Net neutrality establishes certain “bright lines” when it comes to how broadband providers handle internet traffic. Not only do they prohibit providers from blocking access to particular sites or services but they also bar them from slowing access to such sites and services. And they prohibit providers from establishing so-called fast lanes that would provide faster or more reliable access to particular sites and services, whether those offered by the providers themselves or by partners that pay for the privilege. In addition to these bright lines, the rules require providers to disclose to customers the steps they take to manage their networks.

There’s been pretty wide agreement across the political aisle for more than a decade of the need for some form of net neutrality rules. And the big broadband providers have generally said they plan to adhere to them.

But Pai’s proposal questions whether any of those rules should remain in place.

We “seek comment on whether we should keep, modify, or eliminate the bright line and transparency rules,” Pai’s proposal states.

When agencies such as the FCC pose questions like that, they’re attempting to lay the foundation for a potential policy shift.

“He doesn’t flat out propose it, but that’s the clear implication,” said Sohn, who had a close-up view of the rule-making process during her time at the FCC. “It leans so heavily toward no rules at all.”

That kind of move would be radical and dangerous. Right now, for example, the net neutrality rules require broadband providers to let you access any legal site or service you want to get to on the internet. In the future, though, if the proposal moves in the direction Pai is forecasting, providers would have the right to block women from accessing Planned Parenthood’s website, say, or conservative groups from visiting Ann Coulter’s website.

It was concerns about such threats that led to the net neutrality rules in the first place and the effort under Wheeler — after the courts had twice struck down the rules — to ground them in strong legal authority. Wheeler’s effort was broadly popular; the FCC received some four million comments — the most it had ever received for any issue — backing the move.

Net neutrality backers are betting that people will come out again to defend those rules.

“Very few people want the cable and phone companies telling them where they can go on the internet,” said Matt Wood, a policy director at Free Press, a consumer advocacy group that has long backed net neutrality.

If Pai’s proposal was shocking, his justifications for it ranged from the misleading to the flat-out false.

Pai argues, for example, that Wheeler’s net neutrality rules represented a radical departure for the FCC, moving it from a “light-touch” regulatory regime that had allowed the internet to thrive over the last 20 years to an outdated and “heavy-handed” one that’s put the internet under government control.

There’s so much wrong with this argument that’s hard to know where to start. The FCC’s net neutrality rules don’t represent some kind of government takeover of the internet. Internet users and internet companies such as Facebook, Netflix or Apple aren’t affected by them. Instead, they solely govern the behavior or the companies that provide the on-ramps to the internet, the broadband providers. Even then, the rules are an example of “light touch” regulation, exempting providers from numerous provisions.

But that was just one of Pai’s misleading justifications. Relying on industry-backed studies, he also argued that investment in broadband has declined over the last two years thanks to the net neutrality rules. But according to a study authored by Free Press, in the two-year period following the passage of the new rules, investment by the broadband providers that are public companies is actually up compared with the two-year period immediately before they were passed. At companies such as Comcast, investment is up significantly. Meanwhile, companies such as Charter have said that the rules have had no impact on their investments.

So, it’s time to fight again for net neutrality. Pick up the phone, fire off an email. Let the FCC and your congressional representatives know how important it is. Because the opponents of net neutrality, backed by the big broadband interests, are determined to get rid of it and won’t let the truth stand in their way.

Moving on

As an aside, this is my last column for this newspaper. Next month I will join Business Insider as a Senior Tech Editor.

For the last eight years. I’ve had the privilege to test out cool new gadgets, sometime before the public laid eyes on them; meet with interesting new companies; and sound off on issues that affect consumers like net neutrality, security and privacy. But best of all, I’ve gotten to interact with lots of you, my readers.

You’ve frequently disagreed with me. You’ve corrected my mistakes. You’ve pointed out the holes in my knowledge or arguments.

But you’ve also tipped me off to particular companies and technologies. You’ve sought my help or advice with particular technology problems. And sometimes I’ve drawn your praise.

Through it all, you’ve shown you cared passionately about the technology you use on a daily basis and about this newspaper. It’s been an honor to write my column for you.

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