Trump’s new head of FCC opposes Obama-led net neutrality rules

Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Ajit Pai. Nicholas Kamm / AFP

US President Donald Trump has announced his new chief regulator for the nation’s airwaves and internet connections – a man known for his opposition to the Obama-led ‘net neutrality’ rules. Ajit Pai will take on the role of chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). In a recent statement, Pai said he was grateful to be chosen for the role by the new president.

An active member of Twitter, Pai said in a post on Monday, 23 January, that “there is so much we can do together to bring the benefits of the digital age to all Americans and to promote innovation and investment.”

Pai, an Indian-American from Kansas, had been one of the two Republican commissioners on a five-member panel that regulates the country’s communications infrastructure, which includes television, phone and internet services. There are currently just three members on the panel. Therefore, the FCC currently has a 2-1 Republican majority and two empty seats, which will be filled by one Republican and one Democrat.

The Republicans are now in a position of strength since they hold a majority of the FCC panel, as well as their majority control of Congress and the White House, which is expected to help them roll back policies applauded by consumer advocates that were disliked by many phone and cable industry groups. This includes ‘net neutrality’ rules that stopped internet service providers from favoring some website and apps over others.

Pai has suggested that he wants to steer the FCC in a direction that favors big phone and cable companies. Under the leadership of former FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler, Pai felt that the organization had overstepped its bounds. Speaking in December last year, Pai expressed confidence that 2015 net neutrality rules would be reversed and noted that the FCC needed to “weed whacker” to what he believes to be unnecessary regulations that prevent investment and innovation.

There are concerns, however, by consumer advocates, that with decreased regulation, the FCC could potentially allow huge corporate mergers, reverse protection for internet users and eventually lead to higher costs for media and technology companies that rely on the internet to reach consumers. Pai has opposed online privacy regulations which demand broadband providers to ask consumers for permission before using their data.

Pai voted against approving Charter Communication’s $67 billion takeover of Time Warner Cable and a smaller company, Bright House. The reason for his opposition wasn’t because of the mergers, but because he thought some of the conditions required by the FCC, such as barring data caps on home internet service, amounted to the government meddling in business, ABC News reported.

The new FCC chairman is supported by the cable industry’s trade group, the NCTA, which released a statement on Monday, 23 January, saying Pai has a “common-sense philosophy that consumers are best served by a robust marketplace that encourages investment, innovation and competition.” On the other hand, consumer advocacy group Public Knowledge said Pai has a “history of attacking consumer protections” and urged him to maintain the FCC’s recent initiatives.

The Internet Association, a trade group that represents technology and video companies like Amazon, Facebook, Google and Netflix, also expressed its opinion on Pai, saying that while he doesn’t always side with the industry, “he is both thoughtful and willing to listen.”