The Federal Communications Commission has once again become industry’s servant. Ajit Pai, the former Verizon lawyer and current Trump-appointed FCC chairman, has ushered in a virulent strain of market libertarianism, pledging to use a “weed whacker” against common-sense Internet regulations.
A key part of Pai’s agenda is to hollow out net neutrality, the public-interest safeguard that prevents Internet service providers from discriminatory practices like blocking or slowing down online content or coercing fees from content providers to create pay-to-play fast lanes.
The debate over net neutrality has always been much more than a technocratic squabble over controlling Internet pipes. What it’s really about is a far larger power struggle over access to information and people’s rights to express themselves politically and creatively. It’s also about the government’s role in ensuring a level playing field and preventing corporate monopolies from abusing a socially vital infrastructure.
In other words, net neutrality is part of a social contract between information providers, government, and society. This contract must include a clear regulatory role for the FCC because without it market forces won’t automatically provide and protect public goods like information.
In 2015, following more than a decade of grassroots activism and nearly 4 million public comments to the FCC, strong net-neutrality protections passed by a 3–2 party-line vote. A rare public-interest victory, this ruling returned the Internet to the status of a telecommunications service, giving the FCC the regulatory authority needed to prevent corporate gatekeeping.
Pai voted against the rule as a commissioner, and, since becoming chairman, he has undermined net neutrality by canceling an investigation into service providers’ increasingly common practice of “zero rating,” which gives an unfair advantage over competitors by exempting a provider’s preferred content from consumers’ monthly data limits.
Last week, Pai unveiled his plan to further weaken net-neutrality protections. Despite disingenuous pro-consumer rationales, he’s essentially giving the telecom lobby exactly what it’s wanted for years: self-oversight.