Well, it happened.
Republican Ajit Pai’s FCC voted 3-2 along party lines today to repeal virtually every open internet and net neutrality rule on the books, reclassify broadband service in a way that prevents further rules from being implemented, and hands consumer protection to another government agency that’s never dealt with these issues before.
Pai did this regardless of the millions of Americans who flooded the government asking for these protections to remain; regardless of the tens of thousands of fake comments that overwhelmed the FCC’s systems and prompted 12 states attorneys general across the country to demand further investigation; and regardless of the thousands of online businesses telling the FCC that their very survival is threatened by ISPs picking winners and losers. He also did it knowing lawsuits would be instantly incoming; the first ones are already here.
Pai gutted net neutrality without ever making the case that it’s a good idea
Most importantly, Pai also gutted net neutrality without ever trying to make the case for it being a good idea. Pai’s final media appearance was a troll-ish video with alt-right blog The Daily Caller, in which he literally dances with a woman who supported the insane Pizzagate conspiracy that ended with a gunman storming a pizza parlor. His most recent private speech was a smarmy affair delivered to a room full of telecom lobbyists in which he joked about being Verizon’s puppet and taking orders from Sinclair Broadcasting.
But Pai has never sat down and seriously engaged his critics to make a persuasive case that changing these enormously popular rules will somehow increase competition, lower prices, or increase service levels for the vast majority of Americans who have but one or two choices for broadband service. He has never said that he’s actually opposed to blocking or throttling and identified a mechanism under his new rules by which those activities would be even slightly limited. His own FCC CTO wrote a letter saying his rollback went too far and needed some prohibitions against blocking; Pai appears to have brushed that aside.
When Pai and his fellow Republican FCC commissioners do make arguments for this repeal, it is so trivial to dunk on them that lately I’ve just been asking them to stop giving me the opportunity, because it’s so deeply embarrassing. They’re not even trying to make real arguments. They’re publishing shallow op-eds aimed at papering over the real fears of Americans that literally anyone can tear down with a moment’s thought.
When the Republican FCC commissioners slip and actually say what they mean, it’s clear that they actually want the things the public fears: Commissioner Michael O’Rielly said during today’s hearing that he sees clear benefits to paid prioritization, and that he doesn’t support net neutrality legislation in Congress or at the state level.
All of this leads me to wonder how Republicans are going to handle this issue in the coming election year. The public hates the repeal of net neutrality: 83 percent of people in this Washington Post poll support net neutrality when it’s explained to them, including 3 out of 4 Republicans. Republican members of Congress issued letters over the past two days imploring Pai to delay his vote and have suggested their own net neutrality legislation.
Threading the needle between massive telecom lobbying dollars and what the people of America actually want without a clear policy message or strong intellectual foundation is going to be extremely tough, especially against a huge field of energized Democrats who can already smell blood and can seize on net neutrality as an instant rallying cry. Here’s Randy Bryce, whose campaign against Paul Ryan in Wisconsin’s 1st District immediately raised another $75,000 after Doug Jones defeated Roy Moore in Alabama.
It’s also worth noting that the first media businesses to feel the pain of paid prioritization schemes will likely be conservative sites. We live in an age of massive media mergers, and it’s going to be trivial for Comcast to prioritize MSNBC on its network, or extend that favor to Vox Media and BuzzFeed, companies in which it has taken significant investment. (Obvious disclosure: Comcast’s NBCU division is a minority investor in Vox Media, which owns The Verge.)
Conservative media will likely be the first to feel the sting of paid prioritization
When the AT&T / Time Warner deal closes, it won’t take a second’s hesitation before CNN travels over AT&T’s network for free. Verizon owns The Huffington Post and TechCrunch and already operates a complicated accounting scheme that lets its Go90 video unit bypass data caps. It’ll be sites like The Daily Caller and Breitbart that suffer for their lack of corporate patronage. And 21st Century Fox just sold off its movie studios, leaving Fox News alone in a smaller company unattached to a wealthy network company to send its data along for free. This knife cuts both ways.
What’s more, there have long been rumors that Ajit Pai has higher ambitions on elected office. I think that’s done. His legacy as the man who destroyed net neutrality is now written in the history books. I hope he’s content with that legacy as an unelected official. I don’t see how anyone would actually elect him now.