from the not-at-all dept
I want to start out this post by making a key point: I know that it’s become fashionable to launch into personal and ad hominem attacks on people we disagree with politically of late. We’ve sought to avoid doing that here on Techdirt, even if we often will criticize people and their positions in stark terms. Over the past few days, however, the ad hominem attacks on FCC chair Ajit Pai by some have been absolutely disgraceful — and absolutely counterproductive. I disagree with Pai quite a lot (as you’ll see below). But the venom and attacks he’s received from many are not just unfair and misguided, but only serve to bolster the idea that the people arguing against him are unhinged from reality. I’ve met Pai a few times and have found him to be both thoughtful and intelligent. I still believe that he is deeply misguided about multiple important issues, but we can debate those issues without resorting to personal attacks. I hope that others will follow suit.
Ever since Ajit Pai became chair of the FCC he’s been systematically undoing more or less everything his predecessor, Tom Wheeler, accomplished during his (perhaps surprisingly) effective chairmanship. To do that, Pai has engaged in a series of statements and positions that, at best, have involved misrepresentations of reality. There are a number of these that may be worth exploring, but I want to focus on one that I’ll refer to as Ajit Pai’s Big Lie, because it’s the key argument he’s made, underlining his reasoning for chucking out the existing net neutrality rules. Here is the opening paragraph from the FAQ that Pai released last week, setting out his reasoning… and also succinctly presenting Ajit Pai’s Big Lie:
Over twenty years ago, President Clinton and a Republican Congress established the policy of the United States ?to preserve the vibrant and competitive free market that presently exists for the Internet . . . unfettered by Federal or State regulation.? For decades, Commission policies encouraged broadband deployment and the development of the Internet. That ended two years ago. In 2015, the Commission imposed heavy-handed, utility-style regulation on Internet service providers (ISPs). Since then, broadband investment has fallen for two years in a row?the first time that that?s happened outside a recession in the Internet era. And new services have been delayed or scuttled by a regulatory environment that stifles innovation.
You might think that the “Big Lie” is the idea that the 2015 rules killed investment. And that is a lie. Actual evidence from financial reports has proven that completely false repeatedly. But, that’s a smaller lie here. Ajit Pai’s Big Lie is the idea that gutting all net neutrality protections is somehow returning FCC policy to the way things were two years ago, and that “for decades” the FCC kept out of this debate. All of that is wrong. And, unlike the other lie concerning investment — where Pai and others can fiddle with numbers to make his claims look right — Ajit Pai knows that the Big Lie is false.
Pai likes to point back to the Telecommunications Act of 1996 as his starting point in claiming that the internet is free from regulations, and suggests that things just changed with the 2015 FCC order. But he literally knows this is wrong. First of all, for all his talk of using 1996 as the starting date to show “decades” of supposedly unchanged FCC positions on this, he conveniently leaves out that the FCC didn’t actually classify cable broadband as an information service… until 2002. That’s from the FCC’s own announcement about it. And this was fought out in court, eventually leading to the Brand X Supreme Court ruling in 2005 that said the FCC had the right to determine if broadband was an information service or a telco service (which is why the 2015 order has been upheld).
And, even then, telco (i.e., DSL) based broadband was still classified under Title II. It was only in 2005 that the FCC officially reclassified telco-based broadband as an information service, rather than a Title II covered telco service. This move actually stripped broadband of the one feature that had created the most competitive markets: the requirement to share their lines.
So, as a starting point, the idea that there’s been a consistent policy position from 1996 until 2015 is simply wrong. The FCC itself changed the classification of broadband providers in 2002 and again in 2005.
Next, the idea that “net neutrality” itself is a new concept that only came about with the 2015 order is complete and utter hogwash. And, again, this is something that Pai knows well. If you go back through the previous four FCC chairs — under both Democrat and Republican administrations — they all supported net neutrality. They just struggled with how to implement it. In 2004, then FCC chair Michael Powell presented his “guiding principles” for “preserving internet freedom.” In that document, Powell laid out an early argument for net neutrality (before the term had really caught on), noting that it was important that broadband providers offer up full access to the entire internet equally.
In that speech, he actually warned of why it would be dangerous for an internet access provider to block a competing VoIP service, and that the FCC “must keep a sharp eye on market practices that will continue to evolve rapidly.” And, indeed, a year later, when Powell discovered that a small ISP named Madison River was blocking VoIP calls via Vonage, Powell’s FCC fined Madison River using Title II as the justification (the consent decree refers to 47 USC 208, which is part of Title II).
So we had a Republican FCC chair who clearly supported net neutrality and used Title II to make it happen. How the hell can Ajit Pai square this with his claim of no one using Title II or supporting net neutrality until Tom Wheeler’s 2015 order?
And we’re just getting started. Powell’s successor was Kevin Martin — another Republican under President George W. Bush. Martin also strongly supported net neutrality and, in many ways, kicked off the process that eventually resulted in Wheeler’s order. It was under Martin’s watch that it was discovered that Comcast was throttling BitTorrent and the FCC issued an order telling Comcast to knock it off. By that point, the FCC had already (see above) made it clear that broadband was not a Title II service, so it relied on other parts of its claimed mandate to issue the order.
That went to court and the court said that the FCC did not have the proper authority to police such a net neutrality violation under the existing rules. The court said that the FCC was trying to stretch its ancillary authority too far — that even though the FCC wanted to, it could not enforce net neutrality requirements on information services. Basically, the court was telling the FCC it fucked up in reclassifying broadband away from Title II, even as it still believed in the importance of net neutrality (and, yes, again, as a reminder, this was under a Republican FCC).
That’s why the next FCC chair, Julius Genachowski, proposed a different set of rules for net neutrality in 2010. However, under tremendous pressure from the broadband providers, Genachowski punted and tried to craft net neutrality rules without reclassifying broadband companies under Title II. Verizon (who helped write the rules) still sued over these new rules… and won. Basically, the court said (again) “Hey, FCC, you clearly want net neutrality, but the only way to do that is to reclassify broadband under Title II.”
It was only then, with the next FCC chair, Tom Wheeler, that the FCC actually did so. And that’s why Wheeler’s Open Internet order has been held up in court already.
But read through all of this carefully, and try to square this with Ajit Pai’s Big Lie — that since 1996, broadband has been treated one way, and there’s been no FCC push for net neutrality. The FCC considered broadband covered by Title II for nearly a decade after the Communications Act of 1996, and even as it was reclassifying broadband to be an information service, every single FCC chair expressed strong support for net neutrality and tried to enforce it against those who violated those principles. It was only because the courts pushed back, and noted that if the FCC wanted to enforce net neutrality, broadband needed to be Title II, that the FCC made that switch, supported with both the backing of the court (in those earlier rulings and following the order) and plenty of evidence for why it was necessary.
For Pai to argue that he’s trying to bring things back to how they were from 1996 to 2015, he has to ignore all of that history. He’s not taking us back to that era. He’s doing something worse. He’s wiping out the rules that courts said were necessary to enforce the FCC’s long-held position on net neutrality. And, more importantly, he’s reversed course on the FCC’s long-held position on net neutrality.
And he’s doing so with his Big Lie that he’s merely reverting back to where things used to be.
Filed Under: ajit pai, broadband, fcc, history, julius genachowski, kevin martin, lies, michael powell, net neutrality, open internet, title ii, tom wheeler
Companies: comcast, madison river, verizon, vonage