Ajit Pai, the new Republican chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is not the most popular man with the American people right now. And with very good reason.
Not content with rolling back online privacy rules and allowing US ISPs to sell the data of their customers without first obtaining their consent, he is now trying to roll back net neutrality laws in a move which is likely to further erode the online rights of US citizens as well as setting a worrying precedent for the rest of the world.
What is Net Neutrality?
For those not familiar with the term, net neutrality refers to the concept of keeping the internet open, fair and even for all users and all providers.
Back in 2015, the FCC passed a series of rules which enshrined the concept of Net Neutrality into US law. They banned ISPs from taking actions such as speeding up and slowing down traffic from certain websites. There was a suggestion of a desire for ISPs to be able to sell such preferential service to big businesses at the expense of smaller ones.
At the time, the FCC had a democratic chair and commission majority, but the votes on the rules went along party lines. The rules were passed by a margin of 3 votes to 2, with both Republican Commission members voting against the laws.
One of those Republican members was the now-Chairman Ajit Pai, and as he was at pains to remind people in a speech last week, he was clear at the time about his opposition to the net neutrality rules.
“Two years ago, I warned that we were making a serious mistake,” he said. “The more heavily you regulate something, the less of it you’re likely to get.”
Part of the new net neutrality laws involved reclassifying internet providers as ‘common carriers’ which put them on a par with other telecoms service providers. Pai is now proposing to undo this reclassification.
However, this action will render much of the rest of the net neutrality laws meaningless as the reclassification will mean the FCC are unable to enforce them on ISPs.
As Gigi Sohn, a counsellor to the former FCC chairman who passed the Net Neutrality laws, Tom Wheeler, told CNN, “”If they get rid of the classification, they’re certainly toothless to enforce strong net neutrality rules and other consumer protections.”
The response from the tech community to Pai’s proposals has been all but universally negative.
The Internet Association, which represents such household names as Facebook, Google, and Amazon met with Pai earlier this month and stressed the importance of net neutrality to him. Facebook has since issued a statement saying “We support strong net neutrality rules and will continue to fight for rules that protect the open Internet.”
Meanwhile, more than 800 US online start-ups signed a letter to Pai stressing the importance of a free and open internet.
In the letter, they said, “We … depend on an open Internet — including enforceable net neutrality rules that ensure big cable companies can’t discriminate against people like us.”
Indeed, the only sector which seems to support Pai’s proposals is, unsurprisingly, the ISPs themselves. The CEO of AT&T, Randall Stephenson, said in a statement of his own that “It was illogical for the FCC in 2015 to… regulate the Internet under an 80-year-old law designed to set rates for the rotary-dial-telephone era.”
It is a comment which totally misses the crux of the argument, which he no doubt intended to do. A rollback of net neutrality will allow ISPs to make potentially huge sums from selling on preferential services, which will damage the online freedom of US citizens as well as the prospects of millions of small businesses across the country.
This is probably a good point in the article to point out that Ajit Pai is a former counsel to one of the USA’s largest ISPs, Verizon.
It is a deeply worrying time for US internet users, which is why interest in VPNs is growing across the country. And most of the current concerns seem to stem from the policies of one man; Ajit Pai. But he is going to be in office for a few more years yet. Who knows what further damage he could cause in that time.