One of President Barack Obama’s appointees on the Federal Communications Commission has spent the past few weeks on a high profile campaign to attack White House’s “net neutrality” plan.
At a press conference last week, the Republican commissioner, Ajit Pai, didn’t mince words in his opening remarks.
“The American people are being misled about President Obama’s plan to regulate the internet,” Pai declared at the FCC’s headquarters in Washington . “Last week’s carefully managed rollout was designed to downplay the plan’s massive intrusion into the American economy and to shield many critical details from the public.”
For the next 45 minutes, Pai issued a point-by-point rebuttal of Obama’s proposed “net neutrality” policy.
The president and other net neutrality advocates want the government to regulate internet service providers like a utility, which means internet service providers would be forbidden from creating a so-called “fast lane.”
Their main fear is that big ISPs will create a system where websites that pay them money are able to load or stream faster for customers. Along with this, there is concern the opposite could occur: a “slow lane” for websites that do not fork over additional cash to the ISP’s or are targeted for censorship. For users, this could potentially lead to slower service for some sites or increased fees with subscription sites passing their added costs onto consumers.
Net neutrality opponents argue it represents government regulation of the internet, which they describe as a dangerous and unnecessary step. Thanks to his position as an Obama administration appointee at the federal agency at the center of the debate, Pai has become one of the most prominent net neutrality critics.
Ahead of the debut of the FCC’s net neutrality plan, which is expected to come at the end of the month, Pai has gone on a whirlwind media tour including an interview with Larry King and an appearance on Sean Hannity’s radio show on Monday.
“I’ve been calling this President Obama’s plan to regulate the internet,” Pai told Hannity. “I’ve gotten a lot of blowback as you can imagine, within the building and on Twitter. But nonetheless I stand by that characterization. Because I think it’s an unfortunate situation that this independent agency has been compromised.”
At his press conference at FCC headquarters last week, Pai went into further detail about his reasons for opposing net neutrality. He said the proposed regulations would be a “gift to trial lawyers” because they allow class-action lawsuits against internet service companies. Pai also argued it “explicitly opens the door to billions of dollars in new taxes.” Needless to say, he has a long list of criticisms.
And, in a sign of how contentious the issue is, at least two protesters started passionately heckling Pai the moment he ended his prepared remarks.
“Stop representing telecoms!” they yelled as they were apparently escorted out of the room by security. “Represent the people!”
Watch them be dragged out of the room below:
‘A Solution in Search of a Problem’
Shortly after the November midterm elections last year, Obama announced his support for net neutrality in a statement broadcast on YouTube. The president argued new regulations are necessary to protect consumers’ access to the internet. Specifically, Obama wants to categorize the internet under Title II of the Telecommunications Act, which would allow the web to be regulated like telephone lines.
“For almost a century, our law has recognised that companies who connect you to the world have special obligations not to exploit the monopoly they enjoy over access in and out of your home or business,” Obama said. “That is why a phone call from a customer of one phone company can reliably reach a customer of a different one, and why you will not be penalised solely for calling someone who is using another provider. It is common sense that the same philosophy should guide any service that is based on the transmission of information — whether a phone call, or a packet of data.”
Critics like Pai say Obama is attempting to solve a problem that does not exist.
“There is a lot of talk about hypotheticals,” Pai told Business Insider in an interview last week. “So the question is: What is the problem that we’re truing to regulate here? The answer there is not one.”
Streaming services like Netflix, which require large amounts of bandwidth are at the center of this debate with ISPs growing frustrated they have to serve these pages to users at the same speeds as simpler sites.
If and when companies like Netflix do battle with internet service providers for fair access, Pai said, then the FCC should get involved in a more limited fashion than the sweeping regulations proposed by Obama.
“At that point, the question should be what targeted action could the FCC take within its authority to address that problem,” he said. “Adopting preemptive industrywide sweeping negotiations … doesn’t seem to me to be the right way to go. It is simply is a solution in search of a problem.”
Perhaps Pai’s biggest criticism, however, is related to the FCC’s refusal to release its 332-page net neutrality plan until after the commissioners vote on it on February 26. Pai said rules prohibit him from quoting specific details from the proposal, but he’s allowed to speak in broad terms about its contents.
In one particularly popular tweet, Pai posed next to a photo of Obama while holding the “net neutrality” plan.
“I wish the public could see what’s inside,” he quipped.
A ‘Politically Motivated Document’
Pai, whose parents were Indian immigrants, grew up in Kansas, according to his official biography. He then attended Harvard Law School and got his law degree from the University of Chicago, where he served as editor of the law review. In Washington, Pai earned the favour of now-Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky), who he credited with convincing Obama to appoint him to the bipartisan FCC in 2012. (The agency has five commissioners, two of whom are Republicans.)
In addition to his position at the FCC, Pai’s active Twitter feed has helped his arguments against net neutrality gain traction. He appears to be particularly popular among conservative radio hosts who have repeatedly booked him for interviews.
“It’s definitely been a very active couple of weeks. Part of the reason is that there is a tremendous public interest in this issue. People want to know what’s in the plan,” Pai told Business Insider.
Pai often cites a Wall Street Journal report detailing the White House’s “unusual” and “secretive” campaign to persuade the FCC to adopt “net neutrality” rules. According to Pai, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler’s subsequent embrace of the plan was not a coincidence.
“This is politically motivated document,” Pai told Business Insider, declining to guess at Obama’s motives. “It’s so highly unusual for a president to speak out in this way that I can’t even speculate.”
As far as the February 26 vote goes, Pai believes the fix is in: The three Democratic commissioners will vote for it while he and the other Republican will do the opposite. If the resulting plan survives the expected legal challenges, Pai predicted there would ultimately be “dramatic changes” to how the public experiences the internet.
“It’s shaping up to be a party-line vote,” he said. “The chairman has made pretty clear that this is going to be his plan.”
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