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FCC Chairman Ajit Pai reveals plan to 'reverse the mistake' of 'net neutrality'

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Speaking to at a Washington, D.C., event held by the conservative advocacy group FreedomWorks, Pai pledged "we are going to deliver" on undoing the "heavy-handed" rule. (Screengrab/Twitter)

Ajit Pai, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, announced on Wednesday a plan to "reverse the mistake" of the Obama-era "net neutrality" regulations.

The plan seeks to take apart the Obama-era FCC ruling in 2015 that classified Internet service providers like AT&T and Comcast as Title II public utilities, subject to FCC control, which allowed more stringent oversight over companies that might block or inhibit access to certain types of web services by creating pay-to-play fast lanes for certain content.

Speaking to at a Washington, D.C., event held by the conservative advocacy group FreedomWorks, Pai pledged "we are going to deliver" on undoing the "heavy-handed" rule.

He said he shared with his fellow commissioners a proposal "reverse the mistake" of the Title II classification and to return to the "light touch" regulatory framework Pai often speaks about.

The notice of proposed rulemaking will be voted on at the FCC's public meeting on May 18, and if passed, which is expected as Republicans outnumber Democrats two-to-one, a public comment period will follow.

The rule would return the classification of broadband service to a Title I information service, which he said can trace its roots back to the Clinton administration and upheld by the Supreme Court in 2005.

Pai added that he would be publicly releasing the text of the entire document on Thursday, unlike his Democratic predecessor, Tom Wheeler, who, when he proposed net neutrality, waited until after the FCC voted on his proposed rulemaking before releasing the text of the document to the public.

Pai has already reportedly been seeking input on where to go next. He revealed last week that he met with Silicon Valley leaders, like Facebook, to discuss ways to protect consumers.

Wheeler, along with companies such as Netflix and Google that rely on mass public use of Internet bandwidth, hailed the net neutrality regulations as a way to prevent service providers from blocking or throttling web content. They opposed any suggestions that content providers should be allowed or obliged to pay for preferential treatment.

Major telecom players have complained of the undue burden on competition and threats to innovation and infrastructure investment.

The now GOP-led agency will be hard pressed to justify a drastic change. When the FCC held its open comment period in 2014 on net neutrality, nearly 4 million members of the public filed comments, a record according to the Obama administration. Many favored stricter regulations.

Pai's speech Wednesday, which was expected to address his plan to dismantle net neutrality, has already drawn criticism from Democrats and others.

Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., tweeted "W/out #NetNeutrality, ISPs could slow down a specific co's internet traffic bc that co can't afford or didn't pay for the internet fast lane." He added that Pai and President Trump "should expect a tsunami of resistance from a grassroots movement of Americans 100% committed to defending #NetNeutrality."

Meanwhile a group of more than 800 tech startups wrote a letter to Pai pushing back against any plan to dismantle net neutrality, saying they were "deeply concerned" about undoing the "existing legal framework," which could allow telecom companies to pick winner and losers.

Top Republicans heading communications and technology panels, including Sen. John Thune and Greg Walden and Reps. Greg Walden and Marsha Blackburn issued a joint statement applauding Pai.

"We have long said that imposing a Depression-era, utility-style regulatory structure onto the internet was the wrong approach, and we applaud Chairman Pai's efforts to roll back these misguided regulations. Consumers want an open internet that doesn't discriminate on content and protects free speech and consumer privacy," the lawmakers wrote. "It's now time for Republicans and Democrats, internet service providers, edge providers, and the internet community as a whole to come together and work toward a legislative solution that benefits consumers and the future of the internet."

Conservative and free-market groups also welcomed the news.

"Before the FCC's power grab to regulate the internet as a utility, the internet was one of the most dynamic and innovative parts of our society. Net neutrality is a heavy-handed solution to a problem that does not exist for customers," Generation Opportunity Director of Policy Engagement's David Barnes said in a statement. "Now, my generation, which created many of the most important online companies, will keep building new products to make everyday lives using a freer internet."

The Free State Foundation was particularly pleased to hear about Pai's insistence on reversing of the Title II common carrier classification, under the Title II of the Communications Act of 1934, for Internet providers.

"Indeed, if left in place, Title II public utility regulation will neuter the Net. The current rules ought to be called 'net neutering,' not 'net neutrality,'" said Free State Foundation president Randolph May.

Pai argued that the best way to protect online privacy would be handing power back to the Federal Trade Commission, which can't regulate common carriers, to police broadband providers' privacy practices.

Under Pai's chairmanship, the FCC has already weakened net neutrality by extending a transparency exemption to small Internet service providers that allows them to refuse to publicly disclose promotional rates, fees or data caps for the next five years.