FCC's Ajit Pai Launches Effort to Repeal Title II

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has begun the process of reversing the classification of internet service providers as Title II common carrier services and plans to vote on a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to that effect at the May meeting.

And while opponents have pledged to man and woman the battlements to prevent it, Pai called it "a fight that we intend to wage and it is a fight that we are going to win."

He outlined that battle plan in a speech on the future of net neutrality regulation at an event at the Newseum in Washington hosted by FreedomWorks and the Small Business & Entrepreneurship (SBE) Council. Pai has said he thought the days of Title II were numbered, and that countdown could begin May 18 (the date of the meeting). 

Related: Ajit Pai's Speech Draws Immediate and Passionate Reaction

Following Pai's speech, Commissioner Michael O'Rielly signaled he was on board. "I never knew this day was going to come," he said. In fact he associated himself with the announcement, saying it was coming from both of them. He said the regs would be "expunged."

ISPs have long labeled Title II reclassification the nuclear option and have been battling to see it reversed.

Pai said that earlier Wednesday he circulated a proposal to reverse "the mistake" of Title II to the other commissioners and "return to the light-touch regulatory framework that served our nation so well during the Clinton Administration, the Bush Administration, and the first six years of the Obama Administration."

Related: ISPs Praise Pai's Title II Move

He will not issue a declaratory ruling rolling it back, so, as he pointed out, "this will be the beginning of the discussion, not the end." He said it would be a transparent process soliciting all views.

That process will consist of:

1) "Proposing to return the classification of broadband service from a Title II telecommunications service to a Title I information service"—that is, light-touch regulation drawn from the Clinton Administration; 2) "proposing to eliminate the so-called Internet conduct standard," which he called a "roving mandate to micromanage the Internet"; and 3) seeking comment on what to do about the "so-called bright-line rules adopted in 2015," which are no blocking or throttling of content and no paid prioritization.

He said he would release the text of the NPRM April 27.

Pai said his proposal will boost high-speed access, create jobs and boost competition.

He also called it the best way to protect online privacy by returning oversight to the Federal Trade Commission.

"Repealing Title II will simply restore the FTC’s authority to police broadband providers’ privacy practices," he said. "That
means the nation’s most expert and experienced privacy regulator will once again be a cop on the beat protecting Americans’ online privacy.  In short, we will return to the tried-and-true approach that protected our digital privacy effectively before 2015."

“I welcome Chairman Pai’s announcement as an important step toward restoring the FTC’s ability to protect broadband subscribers from unfair and deceptive practices, including violations of their privacy," said FTC Chairman Maureen Ohlhausen. "Those consumer protections were an unfortunate casualty of the FCC’s 2015 decision to subject broadband to utility-style regulation. I look forward to working with Chairman Pai and other stakeholders to return to broadband subscribers the consumer protections they deserve.”

As to arguments from the other side for retaining Title II, Pai said it's not true that common carrier regs are the only way to preserve an Open Internet. "The next thing you’ll hear is that Title II is necessary to protect free speech," he said. "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."

Pai called out Free Press, a big backer of Title II. "Consider, for example, the leading special interest in favor of Title II: a spectacularly misnamed Beltway lobbying group called Free Press. Its co-founder and current board member makes no effort to hide the group’s true agenda. While he says 'we’re not at th[e] point yet' where we can 'completely eliminate the telephone and cable companies,' he admits that 'the ultimate goal is to get rid of the media capitalists in the phone and cable companies and to divest them from control. And who would assume control of the Internet?  The government, of course. The overall goal is to remove brick by brick the capitalist system itself, rebuilding the entire society on socialist principles… To be sure, it is tempting to dismiss these statements as isolated rants. But unfortunately, 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."

"And where do the people who are driving this closing of the American mind stand on greater government regulation of the Internet?  They don’t just favor it; they strongly demand it. They raise money off of it. And we are somehow supposed to believe that their true motive is to protect free speech on the Internet? Please."

Pai told his audience that the choice was clear: "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?"

"Do we want rules that encourage broadband monopolies?  Or do we want rules that promote competition and more options for consumers?"

"And do we want Americans’ broadband privacy to be protected by an uncertain legal regime?  Or do we want to empower the FTC to protect Americans’ privacy consistently and comprehensively?"

"When the FCC rammed through the Title II Order two years ago, I expressed hope that we would look back at that vote 'as an aberration, a temporary deviation from the bipartisan path that ha[d] served us so well.'  And I voiced my confidence that the Title II Order’s days were already numbered."

"At the FCC’s next meeting on May 18, we will take a significant step towards making that prediction a reality.  And later this year, I am confident that we will finish the job.  Make no mistake about it: this is a fight that we intend to wage and it is a fight that we are going to win."

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.