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
Add to Briefcase
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.


Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.