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Under President Barack Obama, the Federal Communication Commission passed regulations that provided strong legal protections for network neutrality. These rules, which were strongly opposed by telecommunications giants such as Comcast and Verizon, were designed to create a level playing field for online companies.
Now Donald Trump has taken the first step toward gutting those regulations: He has named Ajit Pai to be the next chair of the FCC.
Pai has served as a Republican member of the five-member FCC since 2012. He’s known for his deregulatory views generally and his opposition to network neutrality in particular. In a December speech, he complained that there was too much “regulatory underbrush” at the FCC, and vowed to “fire up the weed whacker and remove those rules that are holding back investment, innovation, and job creation.”
Network neutrality is likely to be at the top of Pai’s hit list. But supporters of network neutrality rules say that repealing them would be a disaster for the open internet and online innovation.
“Consumers need to be worried about what this means for their access to the internet,” argues Chris Lewis of the pro-net neutrality group Public Knowledge. He warns that in a world without network neutrality rules, big ISPs like Comcast or Verizon could block access to certain websites or force customers to pay extra to reach sites they don’t own.
The president can appoint an existing FCC member chair without Senate approval, according to Ryan Radia, a legal expert at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. So Pai won’t have to go through the confirmation process in order to assume his new role.
Republicans will have a majority on the FCC and in Congress, so there’s likely nothing Democrats or liberal groups can do to stop Republicans from rolling back network neutrality rules. But it’s going to be a long, ugly fight that could tie up the FCC in the courts for years to come.