Over the last few weeks, critics have attacked Ajit Pai online, protesters have covered his house in cardboard signs and he has publicly squabbled with celebrities including Alyssa Milano, Mark Ruffalo and Cher.
Why? Because Pai, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission and former Verizon lawyer, plans to scrap Obama-era net neutrality protections and is ignoring widespread outcry against it.
According to multiple polls, members of the public across the political spectrum support the net neutrality rules, which are designed to ensure that internet service providers treat all websites equally and aren’t allowed to block, throttle or prioritise some content in return for payment.
What is net neutrality?
Net neutrality is the idea that internet service providers (ISPs) treat everyone’s data equally – whether that’s an email from your mother, a bank transfer or a streamed episode of Stranger Things. It means that ISPs, which control the delivery pipes, don’t get to choose which data is sent more quickly, and which sites get blocked or throttled (for example, slowing the delivery of a TV show because it is streamed by a video company that competes with a subsidiary of the ISP) and who has to pay extra. For this reason, some have described net neutrality as the “first amendment of the internet”.
Why is net neutrality under threat?
In February 2015, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted to more strictly regulate ISPs and to enshrine in law the principles of net neutrality. The vote reclassified wireless and fixed-line broadband service providers as title II “common carriers”, a public utility-type designation that gives the FCC the ability to set rates, open up access to competitors and more closely regulate the industry. Two years on, Trump’s new FCC chairman, Ajit Pai, a former Verizon lawyer, has pushed to overturn the 2015 order arguing they overstep the FCC's jurisdiction and hinder corporate innovation. On 18 May, the FCC voted to support a new proposal that would repeal the order and started a 90-day period in which members of the public could comment. A final vote is expected in December.
In fact, the main support Pai has for the rollback comes from the handful of powerful broadband companies that stand to benefit, including Comcast and his former employer Verizon, who argue that the rules stand in the way of innovation.
“He seems to be under the thrall of very powerful business interests in Washington to the extent that he is dismissive of all other arguments,” said Timothy Karr, campaign director at Free Press. “Any input that would in any way upset his entrenched views about helping these powerful cable companies.”
When the FCC was considering introducing net neutrality protections in 2014, a flood of 4m public comments helped push the agency to adopt the rules. In response to Pai’s proposal to scrap the rules, more than 22 million public comments were submitted.
This figure was dramatically skewed by spam and pre-populated form letters, but a study funded by internet service providers (ISPs) that analysed the unique comments found that 98.5% of them opposed the repeal.
“He’s certainly not acting in the interest of the public,” said Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst at the ACLU.
Without clear rules and with little competition in the broadband market, ISPs might try their luck with various attempts to make money by throttling certain services such as Netflix unless (as Comcast has in the past) they pay a fee.
“This is a green light for the broadband industry to figure out how to suck as much money from the internet economy as possible,” said Ryan Singel, media and strategy fellow at Stanford Law School’s Center for Internet and Society.
In an effort to delay the vote – in which Pai will almost certainly get his way – dozens of Democratic senators and the New York attorney general, Eric Schneiderman, are calling for a thorough investigation of the public comment process after researchers found more than a million fraudulent comments supporting the repeal, almost half a million comments filed from Russian email addresses and 50,000 consumer complaints missing from the record.
“The FCC has knowingly maintained a system that has already been corrupted and is susceptible to abuse,” said the Democratic FCC commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel in a statement. “The integrity of our process is at stake. The future of the internet is at stake. Until we get to the bottom of this, no vote should take place until a responsible investigation is complete.”
Separately, dozens of activist groups called for a delay because of a pending court case involving AT&T and regulatory authority over ISPs.
In response, Pai’s office issued a statement describing “supporters of heavy-handed internet regulations” as becoming “more desperate by the day” and said the vote would proceed as scheduled.
“We find that deeply troubling,” said Karr. “He’s really dismissing a very important component of rule-making, which is democratic engagement.”
Instead of engaging with the public, Pai has turned his attention to social media companies – who have been vocal opponents to the repeal – describing them as enabling the “worst of human impulses” and criticising the control they exert over online content.
“When it comes to an open internet, Twitter is part of the problem,” he said, speaking at the conservative thinktank R Street Institute last week. “The company has a viewpoint and uses that viewpoint to discriminate.”
Pai’s critics accused him of creating a distraction.
“It’s muddying the debate. There’s a big difference between the companies people use online and the pipes that get us to them,” said Singel, echoing words by Tim Berners-Lee in an interview with the Guardian last month.
The inventor of the world wide web said that powerful internet gatekeepers such as Comcast and Verizon posed a threat to innovation if they were allowed to pick winners and losers by throttling or blocking services and that ISPs should be treated more like utilities.
“Gas is a utility, so is clean water, and connectivity should be too,” said Berners-Lee. “It’s part of life and shouldn’t have an attitude about what you use it for – just like water.”
Instead of scrubbing the FCC of Obama’s legacy, Pai should be focusing on addressing real problems such as broadband quality in the rural US, said Pierce Stanley, technology fellow at Demand Progress.
“In some rural areas, 40% of people have zero or one choice of ISP. After Chairman Pai’s plan, that’s 40% of people who have no choice the day Comcast starts throttling and they can’t go to another provider. They are stuck. That’s really concerning.”
Pai has argued that it is the net neutrality regulation that is preventing ISPs from making money to fund new infrastructure – something the ISPs themselves have denied when speaking to their investors.
In the meantime, activists are urging voters to call Republican members of Congress to ask them to put pressure on Pai. Over the last 15 years, previous Republican FCC chairs have supported and enforced the principles of net neutrality.
“Republicans in Congress are the only ones at this point who can convince a Republican FCC chairman to slow down or stop,” Stanley said.
If that fails, activists under the Battle for the Net banner intend to sue the FCC.