FCC Commissioner Offers Wheeler a Way Out on Internet Rules

Ajit Pai during a House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee hearing in December Photograph by Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

The outrage has been building since the Federal Communications Commission recently indicated it would introduce a new approach to Internet regulation at its meeting on May 15 that would include so-called fast lanes, meaning that companies could pay for smoother service. Despite Chairman Tom Wheeler’s assurances that he doesn’t plan to gut the idea of net neutrality—the precept that all Internet traffic should be treated equally—his officially unannounced plan has already become unpopular. On Thursday, Ajit Pai, a Republican FCC commissioner, said he had “grave concerns” (pdf) about Wheeler’s proposal.

Now that Pai has weighed in, every FCC commissioner has responded to the idea of taking up net neutrality next week. Democrat Jessica Rosenworcel said on Wednesday that the commission should delay discussion on net neutrality to give the public more of a chance to weigh in. Mignon Clyburn, another Democratic commissioner, wrote on Wednesday that the FCC has never been strong enough with its Internet protections.

The development of new rules was pretty much guaranteed in January, when a federal court rejected the FCC’s Open Internet Order. Clyburn argues that this was an opportunity disguised as a setback. “Unlike many, I actually see this remand as a unique opportunity for us to take a fresh look and evaluate our policy in light of the many developments that have occurred over the last four years,” she writes on the FCC’s official blog.

Michael O’Rielly, the other Republican commissioner, warns in an editorial in the Hill that so-called edge providers—the companies that send information over the Internet—would be harmed by any attempt by the FCC’s to regulate the Web. “Congress never intended to give the FCC that authority. I know because I was in the room, as a congressional staffer, when that deal was made,” he writes. The explosion of innovation on the Internet over the past decade, argues O’Rielly, has been a result of a hands-off approach from Washington.

On Thursday a group of prominent investors wrote their own letter to the FCC reaching the exact opposite conclusion. Saying that the Internet has been an “insanely fertile platform for innovation and investment over the last 10 years,” the investors argue that this is largely due to a state of de facto open Internet policy that existed as the legal battles over the FCC’s rules simmered in the courts. Earlier this week, major technology companies, including Amazon.com, Facebook, and Google, sent a similar letter to the commission.

There is a sense of urgency to pass some new rules, given the vacuum created by January’s ruling. But Pai also gives Wheeler a chance to step back from the net neutrality rules gracefully. The commission is set to discuss rules for plans to auction rights to the airwaves next year. The spectrum auctions have the potential to play a major role in shaping the wireless industry for years to come and may be every bit as important, contentious, and boring as net neutrality. A reckoning is coming on the U.S. policy toward the Internet, but Pai argues that maybe it should come at a time when the commission is devoting its full attention to the issue. “I believe that the Commission should focus for the next week on getting the rules for the incentive auction right,” he writes.

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