Pai's attempt to roll back net neutrality rules draws both cheers and scorn

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai

The U.S. wireless industry predictably rushed to praise FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s plan to roll back Obama-era rules governing net neutrality. And just as predictably, consumer-advocacy groups and other watchdogs decried Pai’s efforts.

Pai laid out his proposal to return to what he described as a light-touch approach that would reclassify broadband as a Title I information service rather a Title II common carrier service. He said that the proposed Title I classification—which came out of the Clinton administration-era 1996 Telecommunications Act—“was expressly upheld by the Supreme Court in 2005, and it’s more consistent with the facts and the law.”

Wireless carriers had long argued against the Title II classification, saying it places them and other ISPs at a disadvantage in the digital advertising market. Companies like Facebook and Google aren’t subject to the same rules because they operate websites and apps but don’t provide wireless service.

The fight has grown more contentious in recent months as wireless carriers increasingly look to digital media and advertising to offset slowing growth in the U.S. mobile market. AT&T has acquired DirecTV and hopes to join forces with Time Warner, for instance, while Verizon has acquired AOL and has agreed to buy Yahoo.

“We applaud FCC Chairman Pai’s initiative to remove this stifling regulatory cloud over the internet,” AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson said in a prepared statement. “Businesses large and small will have a clearer path to invest more in our nation’s broadband infrastructure under Chairman Pai’s leadership. And we are hopeful that bipartisan agreement can be reached on principles that protect internet openness, consumer choice and vibrant competition.”

But the digital activist group Fight for the Future was just as quick to slam the move, calling Pai—a former Verizon lawyer—a “puppet bureaucrat” acting on behalf of telecom companies.

“Paving over the internet into fast lanes for those who can afford to pay and slow lanes for the rest of us will turn the web into a place where the wealthiest and most powerful can be heard, while ordinary people and alternative voices are drowned out,” Fight for the Future Campaign Director Evan Greer said in a press release. “If Ajit Pai thinks that destroying net neutrality is going to be easy, he has another thing coming. Internet users will fight tooth and nail to defend our basic right to connect, create, learn and share.”