President Donald Trump’s Cabinet picks have been a mixed bag so far for defenders of freedom. While some Cabinet members support policies that compromise due process and human rights, others seem poised to enact positive change, freeing Americans from the shackles imposed by regulatory agencies under the Obama administration.
Trump’s pick to head the Federal Communications Commission falls unambiguously in the latter category. Over the last few years, Commissioner Ajit Pai has been a solitary voice in the FCC, standing up in defense of internet freedom and against Obama’s scheme to impose Net Neutrality and other regulations on the internet.
Pai was a vocal opponent not only of Net Neutrality but of the FCC’s ultimate decision to regulate the internet as a utility under Title II of the Federal Telecommunications Act, a move that vastly increased the agency’s authority to tax and control internet activity. Many people mistakenly think these regulations make the internet more “open” or free. It’s actually the exact opposite. To see why, here’s a little background.
Net Neutrality is a set of principles that supporters claim promotes fairness and equality on the internet. The basic idea is that internet service providers (ISP) would be prevented from charging different rates for bandwidth usage to different sites, from blocking specific content on the internet, or from prioritizing high-bandwidth content, such as streaming video, over low-bandwidth content, such as text. Bandwidth is a finite resource that costs money to produce, so how ISPs allocate it matters.
The reason this is a bad idea is that different sites have different needs. Much of the internet’s bandwidth is consumed by sites like YouTube and Netflix. Since their resource consumption is so high, ISPs have been known to charge these sites higher rates so that bandwidth can be allocated in a such a way as to prevent lagging videos and site outages due to excessive traffic. Think of it like a health insurance pool. Insurance companies charge higher rates to smokers and people at high risk for disease because those are the people likely to consume the most health care and, therefore, impose the highest costs on the insurers.
Net Neutrality essentially demands that all sites be charged equal per-megabyte rates. Just as in a health insurance pool, this means that the people likely to consume the fewest resources are paying more in order that those who consume the most resources can pay less. And Net Neutrality’s prohibition against paid prioritization means that video sites may not receive the bandwidth they need to function properly.
The arguments over Net Neutrality have been fierce. In January 2014 a federal appeals court complicated things further by ruling that the FCC lacked the authority to impose Net Neutrality on the internet, but that the agency could regulate utilities under the Telecommunications Act. This provided a simple workaround for the FCC: Simply declare the internet a utility, and it would suddenly fall under the agency’s purview.
This reclassification meant that the FCC could not only impose Net Neutrality, but that the agency could utilize all the other regulatory powers granted by the Telecommunications Act. Keep in mind that much of this law was crafted under FDR, who wanted far-reaching authority over utility companies in order to extend authority over everything else in the U.S. economy. The legislation therefore gives the government the power to demand service from utilities on the government’s terms, impose fines, allow nuisance complaints by against utilities by competitors, and even censor content. Clearly, this is a lot more serious than just Net Neutrality.
Anyone who values internet freedom now and in the future should rejoice at his nomination to head the FCC.
The FCC swore that it would “forebear”, meaning “not use” many of these new powers, which caused anyone familiar with government to scoff derisively. Even groups that support Net Neutrality as a concept are alarmed at the scope of the FCC’s overreach, and Pai told the press that broadband taxes which the agency had promised not to pursue, were in fact high on its list of priorities.
The bottom line is that the internet had been working just fine for 30 years before the FCC decided it needed to fix a problem that didn’t demonstrably exist. Ajit Pai was the only member of the agency who understood that and who fought publicly to stop regulation of the greatest innovative tool since the printing press. Anyone who values internet freedom now and in the future should rejoice at his nomination to head the FCC.
- Netflix’s contribution to the Net Neutrality big lie
- Techies unite! Why we need to keep fighting for a free internet
- What the latest Net Neutrality ruling means for you
Logan Albright is a researcher for Conservative Review and Director of Research for Free the People. You can follow him on Twitter @loganalbright73.