Then-FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai during an agency meeting Aug. 9, 2013. President Trump Monday named Pai as the FCC's new chairman.(Photo: Susan Walsh, AP)
The Federal Communications Commission has a new chairman, Ajit Pai, and, like President Trump who named him Monday as the agency's head, he's not a fan of unnecessary regulation — which in his view, includes Net neutrality.
Nominated to the FCC by President Obama in 2012, Pai and fellow Republican commissioner Michael O'Rielly, who joined a year later, often found themselves on the losing end of 3-2 votes at the agency over the last three years — including votes on Net neutrality and, more recently, Internet data privacy rules.
Democrats Tom Wheeler, the outgoing chairman, and commissioners Mignon Clyburn and Jessica Rosenworcel voted to approve those measures.
But the new commission — it's short two members as Rosenworcel has not been confirmed to remain — could seek ways to roll back those measures. President Trump has voiced opposition to the Net neutrality rules, passed by the FCC on Feb. 25, 2015, which require Internet service providers to treat all legal content equally and prohibits the unfairly blocking or slowing of content.
Before his dissent on those rules, Pai said at the time, "this Order imposes intrusive government regulations that won’t work to solve a problem that doesn’t exist using legal authority the FCC doesn’t have."
Netflix, Google and other big websites were in favor of net neutrality rules. Internet service providers such as cable and telecom providers Comcast and AT&T opposed it. The contentious issue triggered an avalanche of public comments. The new Trump Administration was expected to try to roll back the rules, which Trump in a 2014 tweet called a "power grab" by President Obama.
A native of Parsons, Kan., Pai, who is 44, graduated with honors from Harvard University in 1994 and the University of Chicago Law School in 1997. He went on to serve as associate general counsel for Verizon Communications, senior counsel for the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Policy and as an attorney at the FCC including as special advisor to the agency's general counsel.
At the FCC, Pai has pushed for a national broadband plan that would increase the deployment of high-speed connectivity. "I look forward to working with the new Administration, my colleagues at the Commission, members of Congress, and the American public to bring the benefits of the digital age to all Americans," Pai said in a statement.
ISPs were heartened by Pai's nomination. "During his tenure on the Commission, Chairman Pai has consistently demonstrated a common-sense philosophy that consumers are best served by a robust marketplace that encourages investment, innovation and competition," said Michael Powell, president & CEO of NCTA – The Internet & Television Association, an industry trade group, in a statement.
Pai "is highly qualified to lead," said David Cohen, Comcast's senior executive vice president and chief diversity officer, in a statement. "This is a terrific appointment for the American consumer and the companies the FCC regulates and we look forward to continuing to work with Chairman Pai in his new role.”
At non-profit advocacy group Free Press, President and CEO Craig Aaron noted that Pai supports the pending AT&T-Time Warner merger, which Trump has publicly questioned as good for the market. "He’s never met a mega-merger he didn’t like or a public safeguard he didn’t try to undermine," Aaron said. "He’s been an inveterate opponent of Net Neutrality, expanded broadband access for low-income families, broadband privacy, prison-phone justice, media diversity and more."
Pai could rethink his promise to undo Net neutrality rules, said Gene Kimmelman, president and CEO of public interest group Public Knowledge. "Every Commissioner who has been elevated to Chairman discovers the job is very different from what he or she thought it would be," he said in a statement.
"Most quickly discover that getting things done while running an agency sometimes requires a different set of skills as well as a willingness to compromise," Kimmelman said. "With this in mind, we urge Chairman Pai to preserve consumer protections and to focus on driving down prices and expanding choices for all essential communications services while preserving the Commission’s recent pro-competitive and consumer protection rules and actions.”
Follow USA TODAY reporter Mike Snider on Twitter: @MikeSnider.