FCC boss Ajit Pai has made no secret of his disdain for net neutrality. Or, for that matter, his general disregard for the consumer-protection authority granted the agency he's supposed to be in charge of. Pai had already stated that his "solution" -- to his perceived injustice that is net neutrality -- is to replace the government's existing, hard net neutrality rules with "voluntary commitments" by the likes of AT&T, Comcast and Verizon. From there, he hopes to leave any remaining regulatory enforcement to the under-funded and over-extended FTC (we've explained why this is a notably bad idea here).
Pai clarified his plans a little during a speech today in Washington, DC at an event hosted by FreedomWorks (which, not coincidentally, takes funding from the giant ISPs Pai is clearly eager to help). According to Pai, the FCC will issue a Notice of Proposed Rule Making tomorrow to begin the process of rolling back Title II and killing net neutrality. The FCC will then vote on the proposal on May 18, according to the agency head. That means there will be a full public comment period (that's where you come in) ahead of a broader vote to kill the rules later this year.
Pai's full speech (pdf) was packed with conflations, half-truths, and statements that have been repeatedly, painstakingly debunked over the course of the last decade. Among them being the ongoing claim that net neutrality rules weren't necessary -- because incumbent ISPs had done nothing wrong:
"Nothing about the
Internet was broken in 2015. Nothing about the law had changed. And there wasn’t a rash of Internet service providers blocking customers from accessing the content, applications, or services of their choice.
Pai apparently "forgot" the time that AT&T intentionally blocked iPhone users from using FaceTime unless they signed up for significantly more expensive mobile data plans. Or that time MetroPCS blocked all access to video on its introductory plans to drive users to costlier plans if they wanted the "full internet experience." Or that time a small ISP named Madison River decided to block a competing VoIP provider. Or that time AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile blocked their users from using Google Wallet to help prop up their own mobile payment services. Or the longstanding allegations that Comcast, Verizon, AT&T and others intentionally let their peering points get congested to kill settlement-free peering and force content and transit providers to pay an additional toll.
The idea that net neutrality rules are arbitrary and unnecessary is a joke, and if you still don't believe consumers and startups need some kind of regulatory protection from giant (and ever-growing) broadband duopolists like Comcast, the joke's on you. And it's notably unfunny.
Pai, like most of the ISP allies in favor of gutting the rules, simply refuses to be proven wrong -- no matter what the actual data shows. For years now, Pai has cited broadband industry-funded studies that try to claim that net neutrality rules severely hampered broadband investment, despite zero objective evidence that's actually the case. But this being the post-truth era, Pai was quick to trot out the "Title II and neutrality killed investment" canard to the immense joy of the crowd of attending lobbyists, think tankers and other loyal ISP allies:
"So what happened after the Commission adopted Title II? Sure enough, infrastructure investment declined. Among our nation’s 12 largest Internet service providers, domestic broadband capital expenditures decreased by 5.6% percent, or $3.6 billion, between 2014 and 2016, the first two years of the
Title II era. This decline is extremely unusual. It is the first time that such investment has declined outside of a recession in the Internet era."
It never happened. What did happen: some telecom industry-funded think tanks cherry picked data to make it appear that investment had foundered, then repeated the fabrication they'd created, apparently believing that repetition forges truth. But if you spoke privately to most ISPs, they'd be telling you they saw no investment reduction under Title II. ISPs don't oppose net neutrality and Title II because it makes investing harder; they oppose Title II and net neutrality because it prevents them from abusing the uncompetitive shitshow that is the broadband last mile.
What's abundantly clear here is that net neutrality opponents have zero problem with lying to achieve one, singular goal: maximizing the income of large broadband providers to the detriment of consumers, competition, startups and the health of the internet. And Pai poured it on exceptionally thick during his speech at FreedomWorks, claiming that gutting oversight of some of the most anti-competitive and least liked companies in America will somehow magically improve broadband competition, create jobs, expand internet access, and more:
"Without the overhang of heavy-handed regulation, companies will spend more building next-generation networks. As those networks expand, many more Americans, especially low-income rural and urban Americans, will get high-speed Internet access for the first time. And more Americans generally will benefit from faster and
Second, it will create jobs. More Americans will go to work building these networks. These are
good-paying jobs, laying fiber, digging trenches, and connecting equipment to utility poles. And established businesses and startup entrepreneurs alike will take advantage of the networks that they build to create even more jobs.
Doesn't that sound lovely? Except it's not happening. If the claim that Title II and net neutrality stifled investment was bullshit, the narrative that removing these regulations magically creates jobs and competition is just as fantastical. If anything, turning a blind eye to duopolists like Comcast and Verizon as they abuse the lack of broadband competition to make life harder on streaming competitors (something they're already doing) will have the opposite impact on existing and emerging internet markets to come. And if protecting ISP revenues is the top priority (and let's not fool ourselves that it isn't), actually fixing the industry's competitive shortcomings will never be on Pai's radar.
The problem Pai faces now is two-fold. One, net neutrality has broad, incredible bi-partisan support, and those consumers are certain to give him an earful during the public comment period that will begin after the May 18 vote. If Pai isn't familiar with the concept of backlash and overreach, he may want to bone up on some history. Pai will also need to show to the courts that the market has changed dramatically enough since the FCC's June 2016 win over ISPs to justify a massive reversal of the rules. If he can't, his entire effort will be struck down.
As a lawyer Pai knows this, which is why I still think Pai's playing a game of good cop, bad cop. Under this plan, Pai saber rattles for a few months about his intent to kill net neutrality, at which point the GOP shows up with some "compromise" legislation (likely this summer) that claims to codify net neutrality into law, but is worded in such a way (by the ISP lawyers that will inevitably write it) so the loophole-riddled "solution" is worse than no rules at all. If I were to guess, the legislation will come from Senator John Thune, who attempted to derail the 2015 net neutrality rules using a similar strategy.
It seems likely that neutrality opponent hubris could easily backfire. After all, every time ISPs have tried to kill net neutrality, the end result has been more stringent protections (as we saw when Verizon sued to overturn the FCC's flimsy 2010 rules, only to get... tougher rules). That said, this fight still may be harder than previous battles. With Google and Netflix likely to be less active (they're large enough now that they apparently think they no longer need to worry), the onus is going to be on grassroots activists, debate-fatigued consumers and startups to carry the brunt of the load this time around.