Neutrality fear over Trump appointee

Dave Lee
North America technology reporter

  • Published
Ajit Pai is the new chairman of the US communications regulatorImage source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Ajit Pai is the new chairman of the US communications regulator

President Donald Trump has chosen Ajit Pai as the new head of the US Federal Communications Commission, the government agency which regulates telecoms issues.

The appointment has raised concerns among internet rights activists that laws ensuring net neutrality are now under threat.

Net neutrality is the term given to the view that all traffic on the internet should be treated equally - rather than, for instance, internet service providers being allowed to charge more for a “fast lane” for people wanting to use data-heavy services such as Netflix.

Supporters of net neutrality - which includes Google and Facebook - believe it is vital to ensure competition among online companies.

If a fledgling video service could not afford to be in the so-called fast lane it would struggle to compete with the likes of YouTube or Vimeo, they argue.

Typically, Republican members of the FCC have voted unsuccessfully against net neutrality - under President Trump the commission will have a Republican majority.

‘Fire up the weed whacker'

Under President Obama, the laws over net neutrality were regularly debated, often provoking a strong public response.

In 2015 landmark laws were passed to protect net neutrality, a move seen as a major victory for advocates who had worried the corporate tide was pushing heavily against them.

However, Mr Pai, speaking after President Trump’s election win, said: "During the Trump administration, we will shift from playing defence at the FCC to going on [the] offence.

"We need to fire up the weed whacker and remove those rules that are holding back investment, innovation, and job creation.”

Mr Pai was already an FCC commissioner and so therefore can move directly into the role without a Senate confirmation hearing.

In the past he voted against strengthening net neutrality laws.

Craig Aaron, president of communications advocacy group Free Press, said: “Ajit Pai has been on the wrong side of just about every major issue that has come before the FCC during his tenure. He’s never met a mega-merger he didn’t like or a public safeguard he didn’t try to undermine.”

Contradicting Trump

But the appointment was welcomed on Monday by telecoms giant Verizon, Mr Pai’s former employer, as well as other internet service providers such as Comcast and AT&T.

For AT&T in particular, the move could spell extremely good news.

Mr Pai is said to be supportive of the mega-merger between AT&T and Time Warner announced last year.

This contradicts President Trump’s assurance the merger was "a deal we will not approve in my administration because it's too much concentration of power in the hands of too few”.

Time Warner is also the parent company of CNN, the network that has come in for the most criticism from President Trump.

In a statement, AT&T said: "Chairman Pai will work with his fellow commissioners to quickly and decisively put back in place the commonsense regulatory framework necessary to support the president’s agenda.”