FCC Chairman’s Speech Reaffirms That Net Neutrality Is in Trouble

Ajit Pai calls it a "mistake"

When Ajit Pai was named the new chairman of the Federal Communications Commission in January, it was already known he was a critic of net neutrality. As a member of the commission, he voted against the ultimately successful FCC decision in 2015 to treat broadband as a public utility, which ensured that broadband companies would not be able to create different tiers of speed for different internet content, nor block or limit websites.

His position against net neutrality was part of his broader opposition to regulation, and in the first few weeks after his appointment, he began to strike or withdraw many FCC protections and regulations, including rules on how companies share users’ private browser and personal data with other companies, and a proposal that would have allowed nine companies to provide subsidized, high-speed internet at a discounted rate for low-income Americans.

But in a speech today at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain, Pai explicitly went after net neutrality, calling the FCC’s stance toward the principle “a mistake.”

“In the United States, we are in the process of returning to the light-touch approach to regulation that produced tremendous investment and innovation throughout our entire Internet ecosystem,” he wrote in his published remarks.

“Two years ago, the United States deviated from our successful, light-touch approach,” he wrote. “The FCC decided to apply last-century, utility-style regulation to today’s broadband networks. Rules developed to tame a 1930s monopoly were imported into the 21st century to regulate the Internet. This reversal wasn’t necessary to solve any problem; we were not living in a digital dystopia.”

When former chairman Tom Wheeler explained his decision to propose net neutrality rules in Wired in 2015, his framing of the history of technological innovation was a sharp contrast to Pai’s. He credited government intervention for creating opportunities for progress.

“The internet wouldn’t have emerged as it did, for instance, if the FCC hadn’t mandated open access for network equipment in the late 1960s,” he wrote. “Before then, AT&T prohibited anyone from attaching non-AT&T equipment to the network. The modems that enabled the internet were usable only because the FCC required the network to be open.”

The net neutrality rules introduced by Wheeler were meant to codify what had been an unwritten rule and prevent the future dismantling of free internet principles.

If, or more likely, when, Pai sets about trying to get rid of net neutrality rules, it won’t be an easy process. Courts have upheld the decision, and Democrats in Congress say they are willing to fight to preserve it.