By Miriam Raftery
January 29, 2017 (Washington D.C.) – Consumer advocates are voicing concern over Ajit Pai, President Donald Trump’s newly appointed chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Pai has a record of opposing net neutrality and supporting big media mergers. A former corporate attorney for Verizon, Pai could also enable Trump to escalate his war on media outlets such as CNN that he has harshly criticized for broadcasting hard-hitting news reports on his administration.
Two years ago, the FCC responded to a massive public outcry from over 4 million internet users, businesses and public interest groups on both the left and right, all urging protection for internet freedom. The FCC listened and approved an Open Internet Order to protect net neutrality and prevent big companies such as Comcast, AT&T and Time Warner from acting as gatekeepers who might speed up access for their own services or those paying premiums, while slowing down or even blocking access to other content.
Pai was on the commission at the time and opposed the net neutrality protections, even though without them, diversity, competition, creativity and even free speech on the Internet could be threatened.
In an editorial published in Newsweek, Corynne McSherry, Legal Director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, writes, “Just imagine how much worse things will get if the rules are abolished altogether.” Companies might charge extra fees to use social media, post blog entries or access certain streaming video services, for instance.
Higher prices to access certain streaming services? Extra fees for using social media? Blocking video uploads unless you buy a special "Video Blogging" package? Any of these scenarios could happen if the current rules are abolished. But switching internet providers isn’t possible for the 75% of U.S. homes that have only one choice for high-speed internet connection. Thus, protections against such monopolies is crucial.
Pai’s appointment does not require Senate confirmation, though when his term on the commission comes up for renewal at the end of this year, the Senate will have an opportunity to weigh in. Meanwhile there are two additional vacancies Trump will be able to fill, since Republicans in the Senate had blocked President Obama’s nominees. Only one can be filled by a Republican, due to rules requiring at least two of the five commissioners to be the minority party.
Pai stated after Trump won the election in November that he believed net neutrality’s “days are numbered.”
If the FCC attempts to eliminate open internet, or net neutrality protections, the Electronic Frontier Foundation has promised to again lead efforts to halt the action. McSherry notes, “Internet users have become a powerful constituency that has returned to the political arena over and over to stand up against threats to freedom of expression, privacy and internet openness. If necessary, we will do so again."
Net neutrality isn’t the only concern for the public. CNN reports, “The FCC could prove crucial to Trump, who is known for his obsession with the media.” The agency could revoke broadcast licenses of stations the administration disapproves of, for example, or approve mergers between media conglomerates that could reduce competition even more.
A planned Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger in 2013 was rejected by the FCC and Justice Department, but Pai is reportedly more merger-friendly and the Trump Justice Department could opt not to block such deals.