Dems Look to Courts, Midterms as Pai Readies Net Neutrality Rollback

Ajit Pai FCC

Democrats—vowing to make net neutrality a campaign issue in the 2018 midterm elections—are pushing back against Republican Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai’s plan to kill the rules and his related, pointed criticism of tech and social media giants such as Twitter Inc.

“Net neutrality’s time as a campaign issue has arrived,” Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) told reporters on a Dec. 6 press call. Markey, who has a long record on telecommunications issues, is banking on the hope that there “will be a political price to pay” for the GOP for moving to ease existing net neutrality rules that now guarantee equal treatment for all internet content. Markey and Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), also on the call, additionally plan to file a joint brief in favor of a legal challenge to Pai’s coming order relaxing net neutrality regulations, he said.

The FCC is slated to vote Dec. 14 on Pai’s plan, which would reverse an Obama-era classification of broadband as a utility-style telecommunications service. It would also end related bans on broadband providers like Comcast Corp. and AT&T Inc. blocking and slowing online content on its way to consumers. Broadband companies have hailed the plan, while public-interest groups and the tech industry have slammed it.

Pai in recent weeks has tried to shape the controversial debate—millions of comments have flowed into the FCC on the upcoming rule change—by suggesting that Silicon Valley titans like Twitter, Facebook Inc., and Alphabet Inc.’s Google are worse actors than broadband providers when it comes to blocking or otherwise disadvantaging content they dislike.

Pai pointed to Twitter and Google’s YouTube taking down or removing advertising from videos uploaded by conservative politicians and commentators. Expanding his criticism to Apple Inc., he wrote in a Dec. 6 op-ed for the Washington Times that CEO Tim Cook was tacitly endorsing the Chinese government’s censorship of the internet by recently speaking at the World internet Conference in China.

“If these companies are truly committed to an open internet where Americans can freely access the content of their choice, like I am, it’s curious that they focus on unnecessary and harmful regulation of other parts of the internet ecosystem with little history of engaging in this kind of behavior,” Pai said.

Eshoo and Markey say Pai is merely deflecting.  Tom Wheeler, Pai’s predecessor as FCC chief, joined them on the call and said he sees Pai’s focus on tech companies ahead of the vote as a “red herring.”

For now, Congress won’t settle the debate with legislation imposing net neutrality on broadband providers or extending similar regulations to tech companies, the lawmakers said.  Eshoo called GOP support for such bills a “ruse” designed to strip regulators of any power over the internet.  Markey said he wants to see what happens to Pai’s order in court before contemplating any sort of net neutrality bill. “Right now, we are at the point of litigation, not legislation,” he said.