Ajit Pai, the new chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, has taken a first swipe at net neutrality. Credit Christopher Gregory/The New York Times
In his first days as President Trump’s pick to lead the Federal Communications Commission, Ajit Pai has aggressively moved to roll back consumer protection regulations created during the Obama presidency.
Mr. Pai took a first swipe at net neutrality rules designed to ensure equal access to content on the internet. He stopped nine companies from providing discounted high-speed internet service to low-income individuals. He withdrew an effort to keep prison phone rates down, and he scrapped a proposal to break open the cable box market.
In total, as the chairman of the F.C.C., Mr. Pai released about a dozen actions in the last week, many buried in the agency’s website and not publicly announced, stunning consumer advocacy groups and telecom analysts. They said Mr. Pai’s message was clear: The F.C.C., an independent agency, will mirror the Trump administration’s rapid unwinding of government regulations that businesses fought against during the Obama administration.
“With these strong-arm tactics, Chairman Pai is showing his true stripes,” said Matt Wood, the policy director at the consumer group Free Press.
“The public wants an F.C.C. that helps people,” he added. “Instead, it got one that does favors for the powerful corporations that its chairman used to work for.”
Mr. Pai, a former lawyer for Verizon, was elevated by Mr. Trump to the position of chairman after serving as a minority Republican member for the past three years. Known for being a stickler on conservative interpretations of telecommunications law and the limits of the F.C.C.’s authority, Mr. Pai said he was trying to wipe the slate clean.
The efforts portend great changes at the federal agency at the center of the convergence of media, telecommunications and the internet. The biggest target will be net neutrality, a rule created in 2015 that prevents internet service providers from blocking or discriminating against internet traffic. The rule, which was created alongside a decision to categorize broadband like a utility, was the tech centerpiece of the Obama administration.
On Friday, the F.C.C. took its first steps to pull back those rules, analysts said. Mr. Pai closed an investigation into zero-rating practices of the wireless providers T-Mobile, AT&T and Verizon. Zero-rating is the offering of free streaming and other downloads that do not count against limits on the amount of data a consumer can download.
Most troubling to consumer advocates was the secrecy around Mr. Pai’s early actions. That included a decision to rescind the permissions of nine broadband providers to participate in a federal subsidy plan for low-income consumers. None of the providers currently serve low-income consumers, but Mr. Pai’s comments could foreshadow a shake-up of the Lifeline low-income subsidy program.
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