FCC chairman's net neutrality fix: 'Clinton-era light touch'

Ajit Pai says he will keep an open mind about the future of the open internet, but critics fear he will dismantle all of the existing rules.

Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Marguerite Reardon
4 min read

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai wants a do-over of the rules governing net neutrality.

But he's trying to keep an open mind about the proceedings.

"I don't have any predetermined views as to where we're going to go," he said in an interview with CNET on Thursday. "That's the reason that we call it a notice of proposed rulemaking. It's not a decree."

That may come as a surprise to consumer advocates and Democrats, particularly the ones who fought to get the existing rules put in place back in 2015. Pai, who was in the minority as one of two Republicans commissioners back then, has called the existing regulations "a serious mistake."

Pai's actions could have serious ramifications on how the internet works, rolling back regulations that gave the FCC authority to ensure that internet providers treat all online traffic equally. He revived the fight over net neutrality last month when he began circulating a proposal to throw out the legal underpinnings of the controversial 2015 rules, which tied itself to so-called Title II regulations designed for old phone networks.

The FCC will vote on the proposal on May 18. Passage would signal the end of net neutrality laws as we know them.

The FCC's net neutrality rules are meant to prevent broadband providers from blocking consumers' access to websites and from playing favorites on the internet by either steering users to or away from certain sites or services. It also prevents internet providers from charging companies that use the internet extra fees to access their customers faster than their competitors.

Consumer advocacy groups and Democrats like former Chairman Tom Wheeler and President Barack Obama supported the tougher rules.

Pai, like many Republicans and internet service providers, said he supports these principles of openness, but that the legal framework used to craft the rules is outdated, overly restrictive and hurts investment in networks, which means slower and more expensive access to broadband for consumers.

"Are we going to treat this new technology as we do the water company, or the electric company, or Ma Bell from the 1930s?" he said.

Watch this: FCC chair defends his net neutrality rollback

Pai's looking to turn back the clock and rewrite the rules. While Pai's critics say the former lawyer for Verizon is simply giving big cable and telecommunications a government handout, Pai said he's looking out for the little guy: the American consumer and small internet service providers. And he's hoping to get everyone on board.

"Ultimately, my hope is that a return to that bipartisan, Clinton-era light-touch approach, one that served us well for 20 years, is going to be one that finds bipartisan support again," he said.

But critics are worried that Pai will not only throw out broadband reclassification but will also eliminate the rules that prohibit internet providers from blocking or slowing down of internet traffic. In the proposal, he asks if such rules are even necessary.


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

Mark Licea/CNET

"This isn't 'light touch' regulation the chairman constantly talks about," said Gigi Sohn, an advisor to former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler. "This is a 'no touch' abdication of the agency's responsibility to protect consumers and competition."

Pai said the FCC's proposal is just a start and that he hasn't made up his mind on how to change the rules. He said he's open to anything, including keeping the Title II classification if the facts support it.

"I don't have any predetermined views as to where we're going to go," he said.

Pai better get ready for a flood of views. On Sunday, comedian John Oliver devoted a segment of his show to net neutrality, calling on people to show their support for the rules.

"Sadly, it seems once more we the people must take this matter into our own hands," he said on his show, "Last Week Tonight."

The move appeared to briefly crashed the FCC site, an echo of three years ago, when Oliver initially did a similar bit on net neutrality. On Monday, the FCC said its website suffered slowdowns due to multiple DDoS attacks, not the HBO comedian.

In 2014, Oliver compared former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler to a dingo because he used to be a cable lobbyist. But last night, Oliver said Pai was even more dangerous since he was a former lawyer for Verizon. President Donald Trump, who appointed Pai, also wants to kill the existing set of rules.

Pai said his agency will evaluate the comments the agency gets this time around. But he said the rules will be based on the facts.

While Pai could be persuaded to keep other provisions of the regulations, such as rules that specifically spell out that broadband companies can't block or slow traffic, it seems unlikely he will be swayed from his stance on reclassifying broadband. He said data already shows that since the rules were adopted less than two years ago, investment in broadband infrastructure has dropped at the top 12 internet service providers by 5.6 percent. But he said that smaller ISPs are hurting even more.

"Smaller ISPs ... including municipal broadband providers, have told us that Title II is the wrong way to go if you want investment in the networks," he said. "Just last week, 22 small ISPs in places like Chaparral, New Mexico, have said that Title II hangs like a cloud over their businesses."

Pai argued that this hurts consumers, especially those on the "wrong side" of the digital divide.

"The only question here is what's the best legal framework for securing those values?" he said. "That's the entire purpose of the notice of proposed rulemaking is to get the public's input on what they think that framework should be."

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First published May, 8, 5:00 a.m. PT.
Update, 1:45 p.m. PT: Adds comment from FCC on DDoS attacks.