Top Pai Aide: FCC Will Protect Free, Open Internet

Matthew Berry, chief of staff to FCC chairman Ajit Pai, assured a National Public Radio audience Wednesday that the chairman's proposal to roll back Title II was meant to continue to protect an open internet while encouraging innovation and investment that will promote high-speed broadband access, particularly to rural America. 

He was grilled by host Joshua Johnson on 1A, a production of WAMU FM Washington, about the proposal and the pushback it has drawn from Title II fans.

Johnson conceded he was skeptical that Title II was what was preventing more rural investments, rather than the lack of a strong business case, Title II or no Title II. Berry said he was not saying that the utility-style regs were the only reason, but it was one of them. He said that Title II had depressed investment by billions of dollars, and when that happened rural rollouts, which are the most "marginal" investments, suffered.

Johnson said he was also skeptical that big media companies would just do the right thing when it comes to potentially speeding up some content or slowing down others if the rules are rolled back. 

Johnson asked if Pai actually trusted Verizon, AT&T or Comcast to "honor their net neutrality pledges."

Berry said it was not a matter of trust, but of a proven legal framework—under Title I—that did protect a free and open internet where people could access the content of their choice.

He said that pre-Title II regime had given consumers the freedom they wanted and businesses the incentive to provide high-speed access.

Johnson asked why the public should trust that Comcast won't throttle CBS or NBC, through Xfinity, to advantage NBC.

Berry said it is about having a framework that prevents that kind of behavior, which he said was the case under Title I, where there was not such systemic behavior, and that there were antitrust laws on the books that make anticompetitive conduct illegal.

"I don't think we have any argument about what the end goal is, but what is the right legal framework for securing those values plus other important values like network investment and innovation." 

Former FCC chairman Tom Wheeler, who was part of a panel discussion on the show, branded Berry's answers doublespeak. Berry did not join the discussion but was instead interviewed by phone during the show. "I found it interesting that Matthew Berry didn't want to engage in discussions here," said Wheeler. "What we heard was 'we're in favor of a free and open internet, but we're going to remove all the protections for that.'" He said the reality is there is all the talk about the public interest and rural access, rather than how the FCC is going to free monopolies "to be able to control what you see and where you can go."

He said that is the issue given that two-thirds of consumers don't have a choice in ISPs. 

Berry was also asked whether Pai would agree to go on John Oliver's Last Week Tonight HBO show given the impact of Oliver's net neutrality segment on the visibility of the issue (and the comments that have been flooding the FCC). Berry said he could not speak for the chairman and added that Pai had not been asked to appear on Oliver's show and so could not speak about a "nonexistent invitation." He also pointed out the chairman has been talking about the issue publicly.

"He has been very engaged, talking to a wide range of media about these issues, and I think he will continue to do that."

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.