November 30, 2020; CNBC, Bloomberg Law, Marketplace, and the Verge
If you’ve been following NPQ’s coverage of the fight for net neutrality, the name Ajit Pai is doubtlessly familiar to you. As a 2012 appointee to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), he’s been a stalwart opponent of the effort to keep the internet unthrottled and unbarred. (Although Pai was put on the Commission by President Obama, his appointment was a gift to Mitch McConnell, an attempt to maintain bipartisan comity.) Pai’s five-year term was renewed by President Trump in 2017, after which he was made FCC chair. Though he could hold his position well into 2022, Pai last week announced he would be leaving the FCC on January 20, 2021—the day of President-elect Biden’s inauguration.
The impact of Pai’s tenure in the FCC can be seen in the way Verizon slowed communication speeds while California’s wildfires were raging and Xfinity Comcast’s plan to institute data caps in more than 12 states just as people are spending more time working from home, shopping online, and staying inside to mitigate the effects of the pandemic. However, he also implemented new measures to fight robocalls and established a national suicide prevention hotline number.
In his farewell, Pai said, “It has been the honor of a lifetime to serve at the Federal Communications Commission. To be the first Asian-American to chair the FCC has been a particular privilege. As I often say: only in America.” Online advocacy groups, unsurprisingly, saw Pai’s impending departure as a sign of hope. This statement from Evan Greer, deputy director of activist group Fight for the Future, is representative of their position:
Pai’s departure cannot come soon enough. We are in the middle of a crushing pandemic. Hundreds of millions of people are working from home and sending their kids to school online. Comcast just announced plans to reimpose arbitrary data caps. Kids are sitting outside Taco Bell to do their homework. We desperately need a functional FCC that will quickly repair the damage done by Ajit Pai and get to work protecting the public from ISP abuses.
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Pai’s the second conservative commissioner who won’t be coming back for a Biden presidency. Michael O’Rielly’s position wasn’t renewed by President Trump, largely because O’Rielly wouldn’t sign on to his crusade to remove Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which protects providers and platforms from being punished for the speech of their users. (The president is currently threatening to veto the National Defense Authorization Act to get this done, which shows the value he places on getting one over on Twitter.)
Under a Biden administration, the FCC is expected to restore the Title II utility status that broadband access briefly enjoyed under the Obama administration. Tom Wheeler, who was chair of Obama’s FCC, spoke to Marketplace about his understanding of the former vice president’s potential stance:
I hope that the Biden FCC can put it to bed, at least for the next four years. The Congress, if it’s possible to legislate, could do that themselves, but hasn’t been able to do that. And the concept that is behind net neutrality is something that in this country literally traces back to the Pacific Telegraph Act of 1862, which said that you need to have first-come-first-serve nondiscriminatory access to this essential service called the telegraph. It was a concept that then got extended to the telephone as it replaced the telegraph. And now as the internet has replaced the telephone as the most important network, we need to have the same kinds of concepts. And I think Biden’s return to net neutrality will return us to that kind of stability that we’ve had since 1862.
O’Rielly’s replacement, Nathan Simington, has already testified before the US Senate, but his nomination isn’t expected to come to a vote for some time. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) said at the hearing he would block Simington’s nomination unless he agreed to recuse himself from Section 230-related regulations.—Jason Schneiderman