New Trump FCC Chairman Aims to End Net Neutrality, Consumer Protections

Posted Feb. 22, 2017

MP3 Interview with Matt Wood, policy director with the media democracy group Free Press, conducted by Scott Harris


On Feb. 26, 2015, the Federal Communications Commission voted in favor of new regulations that reclassified broadband Internet as a public utility under Title II of the Communications Act. The new rules that went into effect in June 2015, prohibited Internet service providers, including cellular carriers from blocking, slowing down or speeding up online traffic or giving priority to Web services in exchange for payment. This regulatory doctrine, commonly known as Net Neutrality, had been at the heart of political battles since the 1990s.

Now, just 21 months after Net Neutrality rules came into force, President Trump's newly-appointed chair of the Federal Communications Commission, former Verizon attorney Ajit Pai, has taken quick action to reverse consumer protections initiated during President Obama's eight years in office. A Republican appointee serving on the FCC for the past three years, Pai has long been an opponent of Net Neutrality. Upon being elevated to chairman, he released a blizzard of actions that included halting nine companies from providing discounted high-speed broadband Internet service to low-income households, revoking a program to keep prison phone rates low, and discarding a proposal to require pay-TV providers to make video programming available to the makers of third-party devices and software, saving consumers monthly cable box rental fees.

Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Matt Wood, policy director with the media democracy group Free, who examines the new direction of Donald Trump’s FCC and the future of Net Neutrality under his chairman Ajit Pai.

MATT WOOD: In the FCC, there are five commissioners, but it is very much a top-down organization from the chair. The chair controls all of the other offices and bureaus within the commission. So it's probably fairest to think of it as a really steep pyramid with a chairman at the top of it, and other four commissioners get votes, but they don't get to set the agenda. There also – in addition to political pressure, though – are administrative law and court decisions and the legal framework within which the FCC has to act, and the statutes that it's bound by that are passed by Congress. So I guess I would say we're optimistic about beating back these attack. But we're not naive about how hard it's going to be. And as chairman, Chairman Pai has, I wouldn't say unlimited power, but lots of power to set the agenda. He has to then try to complete these tasks within the framework of the rulemaking and other formal proceedings they have at the FCC and those have to survive appellate review as the Net Neutrality rules themselves did just last year when they went up and won in the D.C. Court of Appeals. So there are a lot of things constraining his ability to do all these bad things, including the people listening to this program who can make their views known at the FCC once again. But that doesn't mean he doesn't have a lot of ways to try to undo them over the coming weeks and months.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Just to review the mechanism for undoing Net Neutrality, for instance. Is it a simple vote of the FCC? Or does this have to go through a court for any kind of review as I think you just indicated?

MATT WOOD: Well, both. So any federal agency can take a vote and try to make a rule or undo a rule. But to get there they have to have reasons for their decision-making. So it's not like they can just go in there tomorrow and say, "We've changed our mind and this is voting day." They have to ask questions. They have to take input from the public. Typically, if you look at the administrative laws that govern all these agencies – it's called "Notice and Comment" rulemaking. So the agency provides all of us with notice of what they intend to do, and we get a chance to comment. And there are other ways he can try to chip away at it. They could issue some orders without really seeking comment, but that's not a very good way to survive a court challenge. They could simply ignore the rules and not try to take them off the books, but refuse to enforce them. They could drop their defense of the rules that are still in court, because there's a small chance that the rules that are in place now will continue on their way through the appellate process and wind up in the Supreme Court, as a predecessor version of them did about a decade ago. So, Chairman Pai will have lots of opportunities to either undo or chip away at the rules. We're not sure exactly which one of those he'll take. Personally, I don't think any of them are particularly appealing to him because even though he has a strong ideology against these rules, they're very popular. What has become a partisan issue inside of D.C. and inside the Beltway here where I am, is not really all that political outside of it. You know, most people – Democrat or Republican alike – don't want Comcast or AT&T telling them what they can do on the Internet. So I think he'll face a lot of opposition if he tries to really dismantle the rules. As I was saying earlier, whatever he does can be taken to a higher court and we've seen that happen time again with the FCC. They haven't always won and in fact, sometimes we've beaten them. But, this last time around, we agreed with them about how they finally got to good Net Neutrality rules and those did stand up in court just last June.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Well, Matt, just to wrap up here before we conclude. What are some of the strategies that your group Free Press and other allies will be looking into to mobilize opposition to some of these very major changes that this new FCC chair, with the support of Donald Trump, are going to be pushing.

MATT WOOD: Yeah, he's appointed by the president, and Donald Trump who supposedly has a populist veneer – I have yet to really see it outside of Twitter rants – but in theory he's not supposed to be just doing what big corporations want. I don't think his Cabinet has gotten the memo. Pai is also from a corporate background and we're worried that he will try to basically do what's good for cable and phone companies and not for real people. All that said, he does have to do things within the law at the FCC and then that has to pass muster in appellate court. And so we have legal filings we can make at the FCC to try to slow them down or convince them that the conclusions they might come to are wrong. We can sue them in court if we don't like the final decision.

And then Congress is yet another playing field, here, where there might be people trying to change the law for the worse and taking power away from the FCC or I guess in this context, giving Pai more power to do bad things. We'll fight them there as well. The key ingredient, for all that, other than the courts, which are a little more impervious to political pressure, we hope, but both in Congress and at the FCC, it's not just a matter of the filings that Free Press and other groups make.

It really is public comment and has been for the last decade-and-a-half or so a key component of everything we do – helping real people to make their voices heard in these FCC proceedings because they're something of a dry legal setting in some ways, but I think, as we've seen over the past few weeks, people calling their members of Congress and resisting a lot of the bad things coming out of this administration, that really matters. People on the phone and sometimes even people on the streets, coupled with the lawyers' filings that we hope we can make pretty well down here from our offices in Washington.

So it's really an all-of-the-above strategy. And as I said, we're not naive about how hard it's going to be. But we are optimistic the people can win despite the power that this new administration is trying to exercise right out of the gate.

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