Donald Trump seemingly took a step toward building a wall — online, at least. The president appointed Ajit Pai chairman of the Federal Communications Commission on Monday, likely ensuring that the hard-fought battle over net neutrality will begin anew. During his nearly five years as an FCC commissioner, Pai was a vocal critic of the policy.
“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 said in a speech last month. “And I’m hopeful that beginning next year, our general regulatory approach will be a more sober one that is guided by evidence, sound economic analysis, and a good dose of humility.”
The FCC is led by five commissioners, and the current round of appointments will create a Republican majority and, presumably, an environment friendly to rolling back net neutrality. Pai, an Obama appointee, was recommended by Republicans in Congress.
A former corporate attorney for Verizon, Pai has twice voted against measures meant to ensure that internet service providers don’t throttle the speeds of certain kinds of content or force companies to pay a fee for access to prioritized fast lanes. Even as John Oliver, President Obama, and millions of online commenters were slowly convincing then–FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler to provide more permanent protections for net neutrality, Pai was there, quietly opposing what he said was an example of government overreach. “The Internet is not broken,” he wrote in opposition to Wheeler’s net neutrality rules, which reclassified ISPs as telecommunication services. “There is no problem for the government to solve.”
Pai ignores the digital land grabs that ISPs have threatened before. In 2005, the chairman of SBC Communications (now AT&T) vowed that he would charge companies like Google and Yahoo for access to his company’s broadband pipes “because we have spent this capital and we have to have a return on it.” Later, the FCC forced companies seeking mega-mergers, such as AT&T and Comcast, to abide by net neutrality principles in order to get their deals approved. Corporations would exploit a regulation-free environment for their own financial gain, even if it stifles a competitive market and limits consumer choice. The commission has championed net neutrality for more than a decade (including during the George W. Bush administration).
Even today, with strict net neutrality rules in place, ISPs and telco providers have found a loophole via a practice called zero-rating, which excludes certain kinds of internet content from counting against a subscriber’s monthly data allotment (like AT&T’s TV-streaming service on AT&T’s mobile network). Wheeler, who stepped down last week, said earlier this month that the practice didn’t adhere to net neutrality principles.
If Pai does try to unwind net neutrality, which has already been upheld in court, it would be a drawn-out process, as was implementing it in the first place. However, Congress could pass laws that weaken the FCC’s enforcement power, and the agency can choose to ignore net neutrality violations. The current rules don’t outline specific punishments for bad actors.
If you’re expecting Silicon Valley giants to be the white knights fighting to save the free internet (remember their well-coordinated internet blackout in 2012?), understand that times have changed. Netflix for years positioned itself as a net neutrality advocate to help its business negotiations with ISPs. Now the company says it’s so big and successful that gutting net neutrality would no longer pose a financial threat. Facebook, meanwhile, has been mulling offering a “free” internet service that would use zero-rating to prioritize certain apps. Net neutrality would only get in the way of such a business opportunity. The nascent startups that would benefit from strong net neutrality protections the most already face a nearly impossible task in unseating the tech incumbents, and they’re unlikely to find support from their would-be rivals.
Net neutrality will be only one FCC measure that Pai could place on the chopping block. He also opposed efforts to bolster privacy regulations governing how ISPs handle customer data and a plan to let cable subscribers pick their own set-top boxes. “We need to fire up the weed whacker and remove those rules that are holding back investment, innovation, and job creation,” Pai said shortly after Trump’s election. The mowing may begin soon.