Ajit Pai's Speech Draws Immediate and Passionate Reaction

FCC chairman Ajit Pai's much-anticipated speech outlining next steps on net neutrality regulation drew immediate response from inside and outside the Beltway.

"When I invented the web, I didn’t have to ask anyone for permission, and neither did America’s successful internet entrepreneurs when they started their businesses," said Web foundation founder Tim Berners-Lee. "To reach its full potential, the internet must remain a permissionless space for creativity, innovation and free expression. In today's world companies can't operate without internet, and access to it is controlled by just a few providers. The FCC's announcements today suggest they want to step back and allow concentrated market players to pick winners and losers online. Their talk is all about getting more people connected, but what is the point if your ISP only lets you watch the movies they choose, just like the old days of cable?"

"The ongoing open internet debate should have spawned new thinking about government regulation by now, but it has not," said Adonis Hoffman, chairman of Business in the Public Interest and former chief of staff to Democratic commissioner and former chair Mignon Clyburn. "Proponents of Title II are mired in their positions, and opponents have yet to come up with a compelling case that allays the fears.

"I believe it is time for another, more pragmatic, view that embraces the undisputed principles of net neutrality—no blocking, no discrimination, no paid prioritization, reasonable network management—and yet puts the burden on the providers to conform their behavior. We need a Net Neutrality Self-Regulatory regime (see graphic) that promotes responsible self-regulation and governmental enforcement, when needed. This obviates the Title II dilemma.

"For the skeptics, self-regulation has worked effectively for decades in the advertising industry, and it has been embraced by both Democratic and Republican administrations at the FTC. It is self-funded and relies on the national Better Business Bureau for infrastructure. If the ISP industry can develop a code of conduct and set of agreed upon principles and best practices, assemble an independent group of monitors, and commit to refer bad actors to the FTC or FCC for enforcement, it could advance the public interest." 

"Mobile Future supports an Open Internet and believes wireless consumers should be able to access the internet content and services of their choice," said former FCC commissioner Rob McDowell, who now advises the group. "But we don’t believe public utility regulation is the right way to protect consumers. We support a policy framework that ensures an open internet without discouraging innovation, hurting competition and slowing down job-generating investments." 

CALinnovates executive director Mike Montgomery said that it was time for Congress to step in to settle the matter.

“Net Neutrality is a foundational principle in the digital age. But for too long its future has been uncertain due to changes in leadership and politics," he said. "That is why it’s important for Congress to do what only it can do through bipartisan process: write into law the principles of Net Neutrality. Congressional action will provide innovators with a level playing field and industry with the certainty to make technology and investment decisions to continually upgrade our networks. If Net Neutrality is as important as we all say it is, it should be the law of the land, not a political hot potato resting on the third rail of American tech policy for another decade.” 

“Today’s announcement from President Trump’s FCC chair Ajit Pai is outrageous, but not surprising," said Demand Progress executive director David Segal. "The announcement is outrageous because the FCC’s 2015 Open Internet Order, classifying internet provision under Title II, is a commonsense measure to safeguard the open internet that so many depend on and that has been upheld by the courts. Millions of Americans as well as internet companies, startups and innovators have supported the order. The order’s main opponents are large ISPs that have made it clear they want to subvert the public interest by manipulating internet traffic to benefit corporate bottom lines." 

Open Internet order fan Michael Copps, former FCC chair and current Common Cause special advisor, said Pai was threatening online speech.

“By re-opening the FCC’s historic 2015 Open Internet Order, the FCC is jeopardizing core protections for online free speech and competition," he said. "Chairman Pai appears more interested in currying favor with cable and telecom industry lobbyists than in serving the millions of Americans who wrote and called to urge the commission, during the original rulemaking, to provide strong protections against online blocking, throttling, or censorship.

"Ending net neutrality would be a body blow to the open dialogue upon which successful self-government depends. It would be a red light for democracy and a green light for cable and telecom giants to control where we go and what we do on the internet. The FCC, Congress, and President Trump are risking the wrath of millions of Americans who depend daily on affordable access to the open internet."

"It is always a sad day when government regulators choose commercial interests over the public interest," said Benton Foundation Executive Director Adrianne B. Furniss. "When the FCC’s net neutrality rules were adopted in February 2015, the Benton Foundation proclaimed them 'the greatest commitment ever made to preserve and protect an open and free Internet.' Today, FCC Chairman Pai and Commissioner O’Rielly celebrated their latest moves to favor large Internet service providers over the American values of access and equity, democracy and diversity, opportunity and innovation.
The message I heard from the commissioners and other speakers: 'No one is against net neutrality; we’re just against any rules to ensure it.'

"Chairman Pai’s plan is not what the American people want or are asking for. Americans want to employ any legal applications, content, devices, and services of their choosing on the broadband networks they rely on. Americans want the Internet to remain a platform for all consumers, content creators, and innovators, regardless of their ability to pay infrastructure owners special fees for special access.

"I am sure the American people will tell Chairman Pai and Commissioner O’Rielly what they want. I hope the commissioners will listen."

Free Market think tank Free State Foundation saw it quite differently.

""I applaud Chairman Pai's initiation of a proceeding to reverse the most problematic aspects of the Internet regulations adopted by the Obama Administration's FCC," said Free State Foundation President Randolph May. "The most important proposal is the elimination of the Title II common carrier classification for Internet providers because this designation subjected them to public utility-like regulation. Public utility regulation is inappropriate for a digital broadband marketplace that is competitive and dynamic. If left in place, I have no doubt that it will stifle innovation and investment."

In his speech announcing the rollback, Pai referenced a Free State figure that "Title II has already cost our country $5.1 billion in broadband capital investment."

“This proposal is Washington policymaking at its worst -- an alignment of government regulators with dominant industry interests," said Ryan Clough, general counsel for Public Knowledge. "And it’s particularly unfortunate to hear the Chairman of the FCC deploy fact-free rhetoric about supposed ‘government control over the internet’ -- a baseless distortion of the actual issues at stake in this debate. Telephone providers are, and will continue to be, regulated under Title II of the Communications Act, but the government doesn’t control your conversations and doesn’t let anyone else interfere in your conversations."

"For smaller ISPs, most of whom operate in more rural areas, the costs of these rules are real and substantial," said American Cable Association President Matt Polka. "Their customers also are being harmed as smaller ISPs have put off network investments and are deferring, and even halting, the development of new features and services. The 2015 rules have turned out to be all pain and no gain.

"And so, Chairman Pai is more than justified in re-evaluating these misguided rules to better ensure an open Internet. ACA and its members will again participate in the proceeding and will again produce evidence that utility-style regulation is not warranted and not needed for the FCC to ensure that customers of smaller ISPs have continued access to an Open Internet."

“By proposing to arbitrarily reverse FCC’s 2015 decision to provide consumer protections against discriminatory ISP practices, Chairman Pai offers a slap in the face to the four million people who offered supportive comments to the original rulemaking adopting the protections," said ACLU Washington chief of staff Michael Macleod-Ball. "There is no defensible justification for such a move and the speed with which the action is being taken belies the naked political calculation at play.”

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.