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FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has kicked off his campaign to kill the agency’s net neutrality rules

Pai aims to replace the rules — a win for telecom giants, but a major problem for consumer advocates.

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai Addresses 2017 NAB Show In Las Vegas Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Even as he acknowledged the importance of an open internet, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai on Wednesday set his telecom agency on a course to scrap the tough, broad net neutrality protections imposed by the Obama administration.

During a major speech in Washington, D.C., Pai outlined the need for a total revision of existing federal rules that seek to prevent companies like AT&T, Charter, Comcast* and Verizon from blocking or slowing down web content, including the movie or music offerings from their competitors.

To Pai, the FCC had erred back in 2015 when the agency — then under Democratic control — adopted “heavy-handed regulations,” he said, that treat internet providers similar to traditional utilities, like old-fashioned telephone companies.

Serving as an FCC commissioner at the time, Pai sided with the telecom industry, which saw the Obama administration’s move as a precursor to even greater regulation. Now that he’s the agency’s chairman, Pai said Wednesday that he plans to kick off a process next month to replace the net neutrality protections currently on the government’s books, possibly with something that’s perhaps more voluntary in nature.

“Nothing about the internet was broken in 2015,” Pai said. “Nothing about the law had changed. And there wasn’t a rash of internet service providers blocking customers from accessing the content, applications or services of their choice.”

In the end, Pai’s efforts foreshadow another potential victory for the nation’s telecom industry. For years, internet providers and wireless giants have sought to escape federal regulation, and now that Washington is under Republican stewardship, they’ve been successful at escaping such scrutiny — even lobbying to kill federal limits on the way they collect and sell consumers’ personal information.

“It’s obviously been an amazing few months in our industry, and there’s clearly a return to a lighter-touch, pro-growth regulatory philosophy,” said Randall Stephenson, the chief executive of AT&T, on an earnings call yesterday. While he said the wireless giant is “committed” to protecting the open internet, Stephenson still called the existing FCC rules “illogical.”

If history is any guide, however, the coming fight over net neutrality is poised to be politically perilous.

After years of false starts, the question of internet regulation landed in the lap of Pai’s Democratic predecessor, former Chairman Tom Wheeler, in 2014. As the agency sought to craft its rules, roughly 3.7 million comments flooded the FCC, urging regulators to outlaw online “fast lanes” in which companies could pay for speedier delivery of their web content.

The widespread outcry — which at one point overwhelmed the FCC’s website — was spurred by the likes of John Oliver, who railed on his show against “cable company fuckery.” Some tech websites also participated in a fictional “internet slowdown” in protest. In the end, though, net neutrality advocates, including companies in Silicon Valley, celebrated Wheeler’s final rules. Broadband providers, however, took the FCC to federal court. While they lost to the FCC in the first round, their legal challenge continues and could eventually land at the Supreme Court.

On Wednesday, though, Pai told a different story: In his speech, he attributed the FCC’s net neutrality rules to politics, even alleging that Democrats sought to implement them to motivate voters after the party faltered in the 2014 congressional elections.

As Pai looks to reverse those rules, however, he could face even greater political blowback, and liberal groups like Free Press already have signaled they intend to bring the heat. Web giants including Facebook and Google — through their main D.C. lobbying group, the Internet Association — also have urged Pai in recent days to maintain the open internet protections currently on the books.

Hours before the chairman spoke, roughly 800 lesser-known startups from New York City to San Francisco wrote him a letter that said they are “deeply concerned” with his intention to undo net neutrality rules. Democrats at the FCC and in the U.S. Congress, meanwhile, similarly sounded off Wednesday against Pai’s plans. “Simply put, the chairman is making a mistake, and maybe underestimating the outrage that is mounting,” said Sen. Brian Schatz, the Democratic leader on the Senate’s internet policy committee, in an interview with Recode.

For now, Pai’s net neutrality roadmap essentially has two parts. The Republican chairman first seeks to cancel the current rules that “reclassify” internet providers as “common carriers.” Those are the utility-like rules the telecom industry so despises.

However, Pai hasn’t put forward an exact replacement. The FCC chairman only plans in May to seek a vote that would open the agency’s doors for public debate by ISPs, tech giants in Silicon Valley and vocal consumer advocates.

Throughout April, Pai has huddled in Silicon Valley with executives from Apple, Facebook, Oracle and Intel, and he met in Washington, D.C., with lobbying groups like USTelecom. Privately, he expressed early interest to the nation’s largest carriers in pursuing net neutrality rules that would be voluntary in nature — and, potentially, enforced by another federal agency entirely.

* Comcast, through its NBCU arm, is an investor in Vox Media, which owns this website.

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