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FCC's Pai: I am going to kill net neutrality in US

Watchdog boss opens can of worms, sticks partisan head in

By Kieren McCarthy, 26 Apr 2017

The head of America's telecoms regulator, the FCC, has vowed to kill off his nation's net neutrality safeguards.

Speaking in Washington, DC, on Wednesday, Ajit Pai said he will, next month, set out proposals that will, by the end of the year, axe today's net neutrality rules.

In particular, Pai focused on the classification of broadband providers as Title II carriers, which effectively makes the internet a utility and applies the same rules as those governing telephone companies onto internet providers.

Under Pai's plan – which will be published tomorrow – internet providers would be moved back to the previous Title I classification as "information providers," and the "internet conduct standard" that was introduced to give the FCC the authority to act against ISPs would be eliminated.

The plan can expect fierce opposition from internet companies ranging from startups to giants like Google and Facebook, as well as from ordinary internet users who made their views known in the millions when the FCC was drawing up the rules.

In what was an extraordinary and unprofessional intervention however, Pai pre-emptively dismissed likely arguments that will be made against the proposal. "Now in any debate, there are at least two sides," he said. "So I'd like to briefly address the main argument that you will hear from Title II supporters."

Disdain

While outlining the pros and cons of any policy is a vital part of the process, Pai spoke derisively and disdainfully of anyone who supports the Title II classification.

"Throughout the discussion that is to come, you will hear from the other side that Title II regulation is the only way to preserve a free and open Internet. This is a lie. They will repeat it over and over again, but it's just not true. And you don't have to be a regulator or a lawyer to figure that out. You just need to have a memory."

Completely ignoring the complex history that led up to the net neutrality rules, Pai spouted: "We were not living in some digital dystopia before the partisan imposition of a massive plan hatched in Washington saved all of us."

He continued: "The next thing you'll hear is that Title II is necessary to protect free speech. That's right: some will argue that government control is the key to the ability to speak your mind on the Internet. Most Americans should recognize this absurdity for what it is. For government regulation is no friend to free speech, but its enemy."

This charged ideological series of strawman arguments was then followed up by an extraordinary ad hominem attack on the cofounder of one of the pressure groups that had argued for the rules back in 2014, Free Press.

"Consider, for example, the leading special interest in favor of Title II: a spectacularly misnamed Beltway lobbying group called Free Press. Its cofounder and current board member makes no effort to hide the group's true agenda," Pai raved, before attacking the man – who was not present – for several minutes, accusing him of being a socialist, wanting to destroy capitalism, being a supporter of the regime in Venezuela, and a slew of other muckraking insults that one would usually only expect to hear against an opponent in an election campaign.

The fact that it was the head of the FCC discussing the opening of a new public policy process is a sign of just how far President Trump's style of fact-free name-calling has extended into the federal government. It does not show Ajit Pai in a good light.

Embarrassing

And, in an even more embarrassing effort to make his case for removing Title II classification, Pai ended his speech with a series of rhetorical questions so wildly slanted that you have to wonder whether the result of the policy proposal will hold up to judicial scrutiny.

So the choice in front of us could not be clearer.

Do we want the government to control the Internet? Or do we want to embrace the light-touch approach established by President Clinton and a Republican Congress in 1996 and repeatedly reaffirmed by Democratic and Republican FCCs alike?

Do we want to discourage the private sector from investing more in building and expanding networks? Or do we want to encourage more investment in online infrastructure and enable more Americans to have digital opportunity?

Do we want to have fewer Americans employed? Or do we want to put more Americans to work building next-generation networks?

Pai has made it clear he is going to approve his proposal regardless of what anyone says – something that opponents will argue undermines the FCC's entire policy process.

Even worse, Pai's fellow Republican commissioner on the FCC (which only has three members when it should have five, thanks entirely to partisan politics), Mike O'Rielly – clearly fired up by Pai's partisan rhetoric – gave a short speech in which he railed against the "liberal ideology" that had put the original rules in place, and argued that they pulled the United States into a "dark and horrible abyss" and that the new plan would "bring back sanity" to telecom regulation.

The real issue

All of which is a terrible shame because underneath the ravings, personal insults and wildly inaccurate claims, there is a solid argument to be had against Title II classification.

The reason that the previous administration under chairman Tom Wheeler decided to reclassify internet providers under Title II was to give the regulator the clear legal authority to act after its previous internet rules have been deemed illegal.

It was clear that Congress would not pass new telecom legislation and so the FCC used what it felt was the best fit from existing legislation. But in just the same way that Pai and others mock that decision as "coming from legislation intended for rotary dial telephones," the exact same argument can be made against relying on legislation from 1996 – when the internet was in its infancy – something that Pai heavily promoted as the best solution.

There is a strong argument to be made that the internet is a different animal from the telephone system, and that Title II imposes rules and regulations that will end up making it harder for small companies to compete at the level of supplying internet access or building services or applications.

But that case had to be made by Garrett Johnson, the cofounder of San Francisco-based Lincoln Labs, who gave a short speech ahead of Pai. Although Johnson also knowingly conflated government regulation with government "control" of the internet, he pointed out that it was likely to lead to "new taxes, new rate regulations, new fees and micro management" of the internet by the federal government.

Channelling Alex Jones

Pai instead dropped Republican talking points and conspiracy theories that he must know to be inaccurate.

Having attacked the cofounder of Free Speech, he argued that he was symbolic of a larger problem.

It is all-too typical of a larger movement in our country today that is fundamentally hostile to free speech. We see it in efforts to banish those who express unpopular views online. We see it when speakers are barred from college campuses, violently of late. We see it when university bureaucrats use Orwellian phrases like wanting 'to continue empowering a culture of controversy prevention.' And we see it when members of the Federal Election Commission seek to restrict political speech and regulate online platforms like the Drudge Report.

This sort of partisan ranting should have no place at the FCC, especially not from its chair.

But it is almost guaranteed to fire up those on both sides of the debate to the point where it is impossible to divine a reasoned route through the middle – which until recently was always the goal of policy processes.

As to what should be the end result of this re-review of internet providers under federal law, the real answer is actually quite simple.

Separation

There should be a clear separation between providing internet access and supplying internet content. Just because AT&T, Time Warner and Comcast sit on both sides of the fence does not mean that it is impossible or even advisable to ignore the enormous difference between supplying access to the global network and the content that you receive over it.

Just because there is money to be made in controlling what comes through that entry point does not mean that people should be obliged to accept it.

But opponents to Title II are correct when they argue that the old regulations are not the best way to make that split. Those rules are developed for outdated technology in a different world. They are too focused on reports and controls. And so they should be rewritten, by Congress, looking forward to the future.

What Pai's plan does however, sadly, is force the issue of the internet into the destructive circular world of partisan politics, where all the energy is spent beating the other side rather than working on a better solution together.

And when Pai is gone and the Democrats are inevitably back in charge at the FCC, what then? Another proposal all over again to reassert Title II?

Pai made big play about how his plan was good for America: for innovation, for jobs, for internet access – which all sounded like campaign trail promises rather than objective assessment.

The truth is that what's good for America is to get the internet as far as possible away from politics to be built on without being interfered with. Today's announcement has made that impossible while Ajit Pai is in charge. ®

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