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FCC chairman calls Twitter the real threat to an open internet

Ajit Pai calls out Twitter for censorship, but also pokes fun at criticism from celebs like Alyssa Milano about his plan to repeal net neutrality rules.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has gone on the attack to defend his proposal to roll back net neutrality regulations.

Pai said in a speech Tuesday he wanted to "cut through the hysteria and hot air" about the proposal he unveiled last week to unwind the Obama-era rules that prevent broadband companies from controlling consumers' internet experience.

The Federal Communications Commission chairman defended his plan as a return to a light regulatory framework established by President Bill Clinton in the 1990s at the dawn of the commercial internet. Then he went on the attack against social media platform Twitter, accusing it and other, unnamed internet companies of censorship.


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Pai, chairman of the FCC, says he supports the principles behind net neutrality, but thinks the 2015 rules should be repealed.

Mark Licea/CNET 

He argued that these companies, rather than internet services providers, are the real threat to an open internet.

"Let's not kid ourselves. When it comes to an open internet, Twitter is part of the problem," Pai said at an event hosted by the R Street Institute in Washington. "The company has a viewpoint and uses that viewpoint to discriminate."

Twitter didn't respond to a request for comment.

He also attacked celebrities who've taken to Twitter and other social media networks to criticize his new policy. He poked fun at actress Alyssa Milano's tweet last week that said the FCC's move puts  democracy at risk. Milano, who starred with Tony Danza in the 1980s hit TV show "Who's the Boss?" has advocated for net neutrality in the past.  

"I'm threatening our democracy? Really?" Pai quipped. "If this were 'Who's the Boss?' this would be an opportunity for Tony Danza to dish out some wisdom about the consequences of making things up."

Pai's attacks come as more than 200 companies, including Airbnb, Reddit and Twitter, have urged the agency to reconsider its repeal of net neutrality regulations. These companies say that dismantling the regulations would "put small and medium-sized businesses at a disadvantage and prevent innovative new ones from even getting off the ground."

Democratic lawmakers, like Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii, as well as millions of citizens have also come out strongly against a repeal. More than 10 million comments were filed at the FCC this summer as part of the public record on Pai's initial proposal to roll back the rules. And grassroots organizers report that more than 200,000 calls were made to Congress in the 24 hours following the release of Pai's proposal.

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Meanwhile, the backlash seems to be having an effect. Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican from Maine, late last week broke with her fellow GOP lawmakers to voice her support for the net neutrality rules.

"Pai is clearly panicked he is losing Republicans. Hence, the attacks on Silicon Valley and Hollywood celebrities," Harold Feld of the advocacy group Public Knowledge said. "It's usually a dead giveaway that someone is trying to snow you when they explain how criticism of a highly unpopular item claims that the facts are on his side and everyone else is subject to fear mongering or hysterics."

Pai's plan to fix the internet

Pai's plan essentially undoes net neutrality rules passed by Democrats in 2015. These rules prohibited broadband providers from blocking or slowing traffic. They also banned these companies from charging internet companies, like Netflix and Google, to reach their customers faster than their competitors. But the biggest change to the regulation is that the FCC has stripped broadband of its legal classification as a public utility like the traditional telephone network.

But the plan does more than just ditch the old rules and change a legal classification. It also abdicates much of the FCC's authority for overseeing the internet to another federal agency, ceding it to the Federal Trade Commission. And the rules also make sure that states can't pass their own regulations that could help protect customers from internet service providers abusing their power.

In his speech, Pai said his proposal "will bring back the same legal framework that was governing the Internet three years ago today and that has governed the Internet for most of its existence." He said that under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush the internet flourished under a light-touch regulatory regime in which broadband was not subject to the same outdated regulation as the old telephone network.

Then under President Barack Obama "the FCC scrapped the tried-and-true, light-touch regulation of the Internet and replaced it with heavy-handed micromanagement."

Net neutrality supporters rebutted Pai's retelling of the past.

"The chairman's speech is revisionist history," said Gigi Sohn, a former adviser to Tom Wheeler, who in his term as FCC chief pushed for the 2015 rules.  "His decision to repeal all of the substantive net neutrality protections and toss away all of the FCC's legal authority over broadband constitutes a radical abdication of the FCC's responsibility to protect consumers and competition."

Sohn said Pai should listen to the public outcry and pull his proposal from the agenda of the agency's December meeting.

"What the chairman calls 'hysteria' is actually the American people responding to a flawed and dangerous plan," she said.

But Pai, who as a commissioner vehemently opposed the 2015 rules, seems unlikely to do that. He has the support of his two Republican colleagues on the commission, Brendan Carr and Michael O'Rielly. What's more, Pai argued that the 2015 rules are fundamentally bad for the internet and consumers because they discourage investment. He said the negative effects can already be measured.

Investment in broadband and wireless infrastructure, he said, declined by $3.6 billion, or more than 5 percent, in the two years since the rules were put in place. He said this was the first time in the internet era that such investment declined outside of a recession.

"When there's less investment, that means fewer next-generation networks are built," he said. "That means fewer jobs for Americans building those networks. And that means more Americans are left on the wrong side on the digital divide."

Pai said smaller telecom companies are the ones most hurt by the 2015 rules, with more than two dozen of them submitting a letter to the FCC complaining of how the agency's heavy-handed rules affected their ability to get financing.  

But net neutrality backers say these statistics are misleading, given that many of the largest broadband and wireless companies in the US have told investors that the rules have had little effect on their investments.

Twitter is the 'real' threat

Pai criticized claims that revoking the net neutrality rules would leave the internet vulnerable to censorship by ISPs and could lead to less free speech.

He said the real threat to an open internet comes from companies like Twitter that regularly pick and choose what gets posted to their sites based on their political agendas. He accused Twitter specifically of blocking Republican Rep. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee from advertising her Senate campaign launch video because it featured a pro-life message. (Twitter told Reuters Blackburn's video wasn't censored.) He went on to say that the company has a "double standard when it comes to suspending or deverifying conservative users' accounts as opposed to those of liberal users."

"This conduct is many things," he said. "But it isn't fighting for an open internet."

Net neutrality supporters like Matt Wood of the consumer advocacy group Free Press called his remarks nonsense.

"It's a curious place for Republicans to find themselves," Wood said. "Their rallying cry appears to be: Don't regulate the internet -- except for Twitter! It's hard to believe that Pai takes himself seriously at this point."

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