Last week, FCC chair Tom Wheeler released a fact sheet for his new net neutrality plan, and it was a dramatic one. Wheeler intends to reclassify broadband as a more utility-like service, something that would allow him to implement net neutrality rules banning paid prioritization, or unreasonable interconnection fees on the internet backbone. Today, fellow commissioner Ajit Pai attacked that proposal in a press conference, accusing Wheeler of hiding its true effect and calling for him to release the entire proposal.
"The American people are being misled."
"The American people are being misled about President Obama's plan to regulate the Internet," he said in a statement, suggesting that Obama had pressured Wheeler into reclassification. "Last week's carefully managed rollout was designed to downplay the plans of a massive intrusion in the Internet economy." The FCC has answered questions about the plan in its own press conference, and Wheeler released a four-page document explaining its major points. But the full document is only available to the rest of the FCC, which will vote on it during a February 26th open meeting.
"I have now read the 332 page plan. It is worse than I had imagined," said Pai. In particular, he warned that reclassifying broadband would open the door to taxes and onerous regulations, and give the FCC "broad and unprecedented discretion to micro-manage the internet." He claimed that although Wheeler has repeatedly promised the plan won't include any new rates or taxes, it doesn't shut the door on implementing them in the future, creating a burden for small regional ISPs and cable providers. In a political judo move, he brought up Cedar Falls, a town that Obama has praised for developing its own municipal internet. Cedar Falls Utility "visited with my office recently," he said. "They told us they oppose Title II regulation."
He also defended plans that could be construed as "fast lanes." The ban on paid prioritization would jeopardize "innovative service plans" like T-Mobile's Music Freedom program, under which certain music services don't count towards a subscriber's data cap, he said. (Of course, not everyone sees that as a bad thing.) Pai would essentially have never supported net neutrality regulation, and he's complained before that Wheeler has failed to share rules with him and other commissioners, but the Title II plan has put him on high alert.
"The promised forbearance amounts to fauxbearance."
Like many FCC meetings, the conference was interrupted by protestors, who brought up a study that found 81 percent of Americans oppose "fast lanes." And on Twitter, FCC council Gigi Sohn contested many of Pai's points. Of the 332 pages, she said, only eight actually talked about new rules; the others laid out historical background, legal justifications, and responses to the record 3.7 million net neutrality-related comments the FCC received. She also pointed to a Washington Post analysis of whether Title II would create billions of dollars in new taxes — it concluded that the actual effects were impossible to predict, but that Republicans' dramatic numbers were probably exaggerated.
Pai is one of two conservative (and anti-net net neutrality) commissioners on the FCC, and he's likely to be overruled this month. But although his is a minority opinion in the agency, net neutrality will also have plenty of Congressional opposition in the coming months.
Update February 10th, 5:50PM ET: Michael O'Rielly, the FCC's other conservative commissioner, has published his own misgivings about the plan. "The promised forbearance amounts to fauxbearance," he wrote, echoing Pai's concern that the agency would fall down a slippery slope of regulation. "Subjecting so many practices to a case-by-case determination of 'reasonableness' raises major concerns about further delegation of Commission authority to agency staff, a phenomenon that has already gone much too far in my opinion," O'Rielly continued. "The FCC fact sheet promises the certainty of 'bright line rules,' but instead raises many more questions than answers."