Services & Software

FCC head, a critic of net neutrality rules, likely to be reconfirmed

Despite Democrats' protests over plans to dismantle net neutrality, Ajit Pai will likely keep his position as chairman thanks to the Republican-led Senate.

The Senate is expected to reconfirm Republican FCC Chairman Ajit Pai on Monday, despite protests from Democrats.
Marguerite Reardon/CNET

It looks like Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai will get to keep his job for another five years, despite protests from Democrats.

The US Senate voted 55-41 Thursday to advance his nomination. A final vote to approve the nomination is expected Monday. Republicans have enough votes to reconfirm Pai, whose term expired in June. Nominated as a commissioner under former President Barack Obama, Pai was elevated to the role of chairman in January, following the inauguration of President Donald Trump.

Democrats and consumer groups have spoken out against Pai's renomination. They say his plans to roll back Obama-era net neutrality regulations and his easing of media ownership rules are against the public interest.  

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai

Ajit Pai, chairman of the FCC, says he supports the principles behind net neutrality but thinks the 2015 rules should be revisited.

Mark Licea/CNET

Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida, ranking member of the Senate Commerce Committee, said Pai's policies "eliminate competitive protections, threaten dangerous industry consolidation, make the internet less free and less open, and weaken critical consumer protections for those most vulnerable."

In an opinion piece for The Verge, Gigi Sohn, who worked for former Chairman Tom Wheeler, the man behind the net neutrality regulation, said that despite Pai being a nice guy, his FCC record shows that for consumers and the internet, he's a "real danger."

"If you believe communications networks should be fast, fair, open and affordable," she wrote, "you need to ask your senator to vote against Pai's reconfirmation. Now."

The vote comes as the FCC considers a proposal to scale back net neutrality regulation meant to protect the internet from interference by broadband companies. Pai has said he supports the principles of an open and free internet but doesn't like the utility-style legal framework the rules were based on. Pai said reclassifying broadband under the Communications Act has discouraged broadband investment. He'd like to see "lighter touch" regulation restored.

But Pai's predecessor, Democrat Tom Wheeler, and other supporters of the current net neutrality rules say that without the legal framework in place, the rules will fall apart.

Democrats also take issue with Pai's review of the $3.9 billion merger between media giants Sinclair Broadcast Group and Tribune Media. They've suggested Pai has worked behind the scenes to ease the path for the merger. Pai has said the review has followed the proper protocol and his review has been fair and independent. On Friday, several Democrats in the House signed a letter to Pai asking for more information and stating their dissatisfaction with comments he's already submitted on the matter.

"Chairman Pai failed to provide the requested correspondence between his office and Sinclair representatives," they wrote.

Now playing: Watch this: FCC chair defends his net neutrality rollback

Meanwhile, Republican leaders in Congress say they're happy with Pai's performance so far and they're eager to reconfirm him as chairman. Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, said Pai is a "breath of fresh air."

"Chairman Pai has already made much-needed reforms to improve the processes at the FCC and empower his fellow commissioners," Thune said in a statement on the floor of the Senate. "He has already shown a commitment to ensuring transparency and openness at the Commission that gives me great confidence in the direction he will lead the agency."

CNET en Español: Get all your tech news and reviews in Spanish.

Special Reports: CNET's in-depth features in one place.