Republican FCC Commissioner: Public Is Being Misled About Net-Neutrality Plan

“I have studied the 332-page plan in detail, and it is worse than I had imagined.”

FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai poses with Chairman Tom Wheeler's net neutrality proposal.
National Journal
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Brendan Sasso
Feb. 10, 2015, 7:21 a.m.

The Fed­er­al Com­mu­nic­a­tions Com­mis­sion is mis­lead­ing the pub­lic about its 332-page plan to reg­u­late the In­ter­net, a Re­pub­lic­an mem­ber of the com­mis­sion said Tues­day.

The net-neut­ral­ity plan could in fact open the door to new fees and taxes, as well as gov­ern­ment con­trol over the prices that In­ter­net pro­viders charge their cus­tom­ers, Com­mis­sion­er Ajit Pai told re­port­ers.

The claims echo at­tacks from Re­pub­lic­ans on Cap­it­ol Hill, who are also scram­bling to thwart the new reg­u­la­tions. Com­mit­tees in the House and Sen­ate have launched in­vest­ig­a­tions in­to wheth­er Pres­id­ent Obama in­ap­pro­pri­ately in­flu­enced the FCC’s de­cision, and Re­pub­lic­an law­makers are work­ing on their own al­tern­at­ive net-neut­ral­ity le­gis­la­tion to over­ride FCC ac­tion.

FCC Chair­man Tom Wheel­er, who un­veiled his plan last week, has denied that it would im­pose new fees or reg­u­late prices. But it’s dif­fi­cult to de­term­ine who is right, be­cause the com­mis­sion won’t re­lease the ac­tu­al text of the reg­u­la­tions un­til after it ap­proves them on Feb. 26.

“I be­lieve the pub­lic has a right to know what its gov­ern­ment is do­ing, par­tic­u­larly when it comes to something as im­port­ant as In­ter­net reg­u­la­tion,” Pai, one of two Re­pub­lic­ans on the five-mem­ber com­mis­sion, said. “I have stud­ied the 332-page plan in de­tail, and it is worse than I had ima­gined.”

Pai said he would like to re­lease the doc­u­ment him­self, but that only the com­mis­sion chair­man has that au­thor­ity. Wheel­er has re­fused to re­lease the draft rules, say­ing it would vi­ol­ate long-stand­ing FCC pro­ced­ures. It’s not even clear how much lee­way Pai has to pub­licly dis­cuss the draft, but he ar­gued that he has an ob­lig­a­tion to “cor­rect the re­cord.”

The Re­pub­lic­an com­mis­sion­er ac­know­ledged that the ac­tu­al reg­u­la­tions take up just eight pages of the doc­u­ment. But he in­sisted that an­oth­er 79 pages are cita­tions of the Com­mu­nic­a­tions Act, which will also dic­tate the prac­tices of broad­band pro­viders. The rest of the doc­u­ment is a sum­mary of pub­lic feed­back and reas­on­ing for the FCC’s de­cision, which Pai said is “sprinkled” with un­of­fi­cial rules.

Wheel­er has said his plan will de­clare broad­band a “tele­com­mu­nic­a­tions ser­vice” un­der Title II of the Com­mu­nic­a­tions Act, which will give his agency broad new powers. In­ter­net act­iv­ists claim the move is the only way the FCC can en­act real net-neut­ral­ity pro­tec­tions that can hold up in court. Obama en­dorsed the op­tion last Novem­ber, ur­ging the FCC to ap­prove the “strongest pos­sible” net neut­ral­ity rules to en­sure pro­viders can’t block or in­ten­tion­ally slow down traffic.

Wheel­er has said he fa­vors a “mod­ern­ized” ver­sion of Title II that would waive price con­trols and oth­er un­ne­ces­sary pro­vi­sions. The FCC has long used the title, which was first en­acted in 1934, to reg­u­late phone com­pan­ies. 

But Pai in­sisted that by in­vok­ing Title II, the FCC is giv­ing it­self the au­thor­ity to de­term­ine wheth­er a vari­ety of prac­tices—in­clud­ing prices—are “just and reas­on­able.”

“The claim that Pres­id­ent Obama’s plan to reg­u­late the In­ter­net does not in­clude rate reg­u­la­tion is flat-out false,” Pai said. “In­deed, the only lim­it on the FCC’s dis­cre­tion to reg­u­late rates is its own de­term­in­a­tion of wheth­er rates are ‘just and reas­on­able,’ which isn’t much of a re­stric­tion at all.”

Kim Hart, a spokes­wo­man for Wheel­er, said the pro­pos­al “will not reg­u­late the prices broad­band ser­vice pro­viders charge their cus­tom­ers.” She noted that the FCC has clas­si­fied the voice ser­vices of cell phone com­pan­ies un­der Title II for two dec­ades without ever try­ing to reg­u­late their prices.

Pai also warned that the rules could even­tu­ally lead to new gov­ern­ment fees on In­ter­net ser­vice. Con­sumers already have to pay an FCC fee on their monthly phone bills to sup­port a fund that sub­sid­izes phone and In­ter­net ser­vice around the coun­try.

Wheel­er has said his plan won’t im­pose those fees on In­ter­net ser­vice. But Pai said the doc­u­ment ex­pli­citly leaves the door open to chan­ging that de­cision in the fu­ture. That could even­tu­ally mean bil­lions of dol­lars in new fees, he warned.

Over­all, the plan will give the FCC the “power to mi­cro­man­age vir­tu­ally every as­pect of how the In­ter­net works,” Pai said.

Pub­lic Know­ledge, a con­sumer-ad­vocacy group that sup­ports net neut­ral­ity, called Pai’s press con­fer­ence an “elit­ist in­sult to the Amer­ic­an people.”

“Chair­man Wheel­er’s pro­posed or­der re­flects the de­mands of the Amer­ic­an people, and Chair­man Wheel­er should be ap­plauded as a hero for be­ing the people’s cham­pi­on for an open, fast, and fair In­ter­net,” Har­old Feld, Pub­lic Know­ledge’s seni­or vice pres­id­ent, said in a state­ment.

Two net-neut­ral­ity pro­test­ers began shout­ing at Pai dur­ing his press con­fer­ence, claim­ing that most Re­pub­lic­an voters sup­port net neut­ral­ity. Se­cur­ity guards dragged the pro­test­ers out of the room.