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New FCC Chief Likes a Good Mega-Merger—Net Neutrality, Not So Much

Trump’s pick to regulate the telecom industry is pro-business, anti-regulation, and relaxed on privacy.
January 24, 2017

President Donald Trump has selected Ajit Pai as the new head of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the ex-Verizon lawyer favors the kinds of loose regulation, erosion of net neutrality, and relaxed privacy practices befitting the current administration.

Until now, Pai was a Republican commissioner of the FCC. He was appointed in 2012 (two of the five commissioner chairs at the agency are traditionally given to minority party representatives). His current position means that his appointment as chairman won’t require congressional approval.

Like Trump, Pai isn't fond of some of the regulations implemented under the Obama administration. Late last year he said that the commission needed “to fire up the weed whacker and remove those rules that are holding back investment, innovation, and job creation.”

In fact, he has something of a reputation for opening the way up for big businesses to do as they please. Speaking to the BBC, Craig Aaron, the president of advocacy group Free Press, said that “he’s never met a mega-merger he didn’t like or a public safeguard he didn’t try to undermine.”

Needless to say, the telecom industry has already been celebrating his appointment. None more so than AT&T, as Pai has been supportive of its planned merger with Time Warner (a deal that Trump has, interestingly, opposed in the past).

Perhaps chief among Pai’s targets when he takes office will be net neutrality. One of the Obama administration’s darlings, the Open Internet Order, passed in 2015, was designed to promote competition and innovation around Internet services, partly by stopping Internet service providers from throttling, blocking, or prioritizing traffic.

But on the day that it was adopted, Pai said: “I don’t know whether this plan will be vacated by a court, reversed by Congress, or overturned by a future Commission. But I do believe that its days are numbered.” He apparently still holds that view. If he succeeds in scrapping it, as our own Mike Orcutt has explained in the past, new kinds of products and services may emerge that would have otherwise been impossible.

Elsewhere, Pai appears to take a relaxed view toward privacy policies. For instance, he opposed measures that now demand ISPs to ask customers for permission before using their data.

Not all of his moves will be regressive, though. As Wired notes, he’s enthusiastic about building out wireless service in rural areas, as well as supplying fast broadband and tax breaks to create new innovation hubs in economically troubled regions.

Still, his chairmanship of the FCC will be rather different from Tom Wheeler’s four-year spell in office. Speaking to the Washington Post last week about his departure, Wheeler noted that “people who expected me to act differently really didn’t understand me. Because I’ve spent my entire professional life representing the insurgent against the incumbent.” Under Pai, the incumbent will get its turn.

(Read more: BBC, Wired, The Verge, “President Trump Might Mess with Your Streaming TV,” “Three Big Questions Hanging Over Net Neutrality”)

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