On Wednesday, the head of Donald Trump’s Federal Communications Commission (FCC) previewed his plan to undo net neutrality, the principle that protects the open internet from blocking, slowdowns, and censorship. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s move threatens to erase one of the most important public-interest victories of the Obama years, defang a much-needed watchdog, and leave people everywhere at the mercy of the country’s most-hated phone and cable companies.
Pai, a former Verizon lawyer Trump elevated in January, has long been an enemy of the open internet. He sees his job as representing the interests of the powerful corporations that used to cut his checks. He doesn’t care about the millions of people who pushed the FCC to pass landmark net neutrality rules and restore its authority under Title II of the Communications Act in 2015 after a 10-year fight.
Those millions of voices didn’t mobilize simply because the open internet is a popular cause. It’s also sound public policy, preserving the same principles that have worked since the internet was created. Tom Wheeler, Pai’s predecessor at the Obama FCC, finally put net neutrality back on solid legal ground—though it took serious public pressure to get to the right policy. In 2016, the federal courts upheld the FCC’s rules and authority in every respect because the historic decision represented a return to the fundamental laws that Congress wrote for the FCC to follow. The Communications Act defines internet access as a telecommunications service because it lets users send and receive information of their own choosing. Congress made clear that it is the FCC’s job to make sure telecom providers offer internet access on non-discriminatory terms.
In place of these essential protections, Pai plans to fast-track a proposal for the agency’s May meeting that would undermine this strong legal standing and undo the net neutrality rules completely. He promised to take away all legal authority for the rules, even as he falsely claims to support keeping some of those rules in place. And that’s the whole idea: Pai wants to set up weak rules that would be meaningless or easily toppled by an industry challenge in court.
Pai’s plan would eliminate the FCC’s ability to police any new ISP discrimination and dirty tricks when they figure out novel ways to favor their own content and services by slowing down or interfering with their competitors. He has spoken before about begging AT&T, Comcast, and Verizon to voluntarily commit to protecting the web’s open and democratic nature. In his fantasy world, strong legal protections are unnecessary since giant phone and cable companies would double-pinky-swear not to interfere with online pathways and portals—despite a long history of doing just that.
The chairman’s faith in the benevolence of monopoly-minded companies is not shared beyond his tight circle of industry lobbyists. Net neutrality is what makes the internet work for everyone who’s online, not just for the providers that control access in America. It's a basic right that Congress granted everyone in this country, regardless of their race, ethnicity, politics or income.
It is a right that’s essential to providing platforms for dissenting voices, social justice advocates, up-and-coming artists, and competing businesses, who should not be at the mercy of the cable and phone companies that want to control what they say and how much they pay. But Ajit Pai has never stood up for the rights of ordinary people, across all walks of life and across the political spectrum, who use the internet.
Pai wants internet users to believe that he supports the “principle” of net neutrality, just not the Title II authority on which the rules rest. But that’s nonsense: It’s like saying you like free speech but just aren’t a fan of the First Amendment.
This move should not be surprising coming from the Trump administration or the current leaders of the Republican Party. Whether the issue is the environment, health care, or worker safety, Trump and his lackeys like Pai manufacture data and lie about the downsides to disguise their real goals: taking away crucial protections and successful policies. The attack on net neutrality is no different.
Consider Pai’s other justification for launching this attack on internet users: the utterly false and repeatedly debunked claim that the FCC rules are dampening investment. In the two years since the FCC's 2015 vote, the industry has actually seen an explosion in over-the-top video competition as well as a dramatic increase in next-generation broadband-network deployment.
Pai ignores the open internet’s historic pace of investment and competition as well as the broadband market successes that have occurred in the two years since the FCC’s vote. Aggregate investments by publicly traded ISPs are up by more than 5 percent since the order came down. Comcast, the biggest of the net neutrality Chicken Littles, actually spent 26 percent more on capital investments in the two years since the vote than in the two years prior to the ruling. Moreover, cable companies’ core network investments skyrocketed almost 50 percent.
Phone and cable executives have no problem lying to politicians. But the truth comes out when they talk to their shareholders, whom they’ve told again and again Title II has had no negative impact on investment. As the head of Charter, the nation’s second-largest cable company said last December: “Title II, it didn’t really hurt us; it hasn’t hurt us.”
Companies large and small have rapidly deployed next-generation gigabit services in record time, and internet users are benefiting. Yet the FCC should not just obsess about investment by ISPs. It’s the whole picture that matters. On that score, the data-processing and hosting sector (which includes app-hosting services like Amazon and video-streamers like Netflix) saw a $3.5 billion increase in capital investment in 2016, the year after the FCC’s vote. At the same time, more new online video services have been launched—including SlingTV, PlayStation Vue, and DirecTV Now—since 2015 than were launched in the seven years prior to the ruling. Consumers reap tremendous benefits and savings from so much choice and competition for their video dollars. Those gains would not have happened in a world without net neutrality.
None of that is good enough for Ajit Pai. In the name of rectifying market uncertainty—for which, ironically, he’s now the lone cause—he seeks to repeal successful rules and leave nothing but cable-company vows to be good.
Nobody will be fooled by Pai’s destructive plan or the empty promises of telecom executives. But millions of people will have to rise up again to stop it. Count on internet users to fight back in Congress, at the FCC and in their communities as they have before. They will use the internet to save the internet—and they won’t forget where their elected representatives in Washington stood during this crucial fight.