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Senator launches opposition to Ajit Pai’s FCC re-confirmation

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/ Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) speaks during a town hall at Evergreen High School on July 8, 2017 in Seattle, Washington.

The Democratic opposition to Ajit Pai’s re-confirmation was launched today by Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), who accused the Federal Communications Commission chairman of abandoning the public interest. Cantwell criticized Pai’s in-progress attempt to eliminate net neutrality rules and said he has taken other actions that hurt Americans.

“Since taking over the FCC leadership in January, Chairman Pai has wasted no time in moving the agency away from its key mission to promote the use and deployment of communications in the public interest,” Cantwell said in a speech on the Senate floor today, according to a transcript provided by her office. “I’m not going to vote for someone who is going to slow down and clog the Internet,” she said later in the speech.

A Senate vote to give Pai another five-year term on the FCC is scheduled for Monday. Republicans hold the Senate majority and support Pai’s agenda of deregulating the broadband industry, so he is almost certain to be re-confirmed. President Donald Trump submitted the re-nomination in March.

But Cantwell is making sure it won’t happen without a public battle. She focused mostly on Pai’s proposal to overturn net neutrality rules and eliminate the FCC’s classification of Internet service providers as common carriers. Cantwell will not support Pai’s re-nomination as long as Pai believes that the FCC’s net neutrality rules should be changed. She said:

As the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, he has demonstrated a disdain to these important public interest principles that he’s supposed to be upholding, and it shows a disregard for the innovators in America that are striving so much to build the economy of the future. The public interest mission of the FCC is encoded in the agency’s DNA. The law created the FCC and clearly states that the agency’s mission includes promoting equal access to communication networks for all people around the United States. This means the FCC has the responsibility to promote the expansion of communication networks and to ensure they have the incentive and ability to compete fairly with one another in providing broadband services, not letting a big telecom company or cable company run over small businesses or consumers and say to them, ‘unless you pay me more, I’m not going to give you essential services.’

We asked Pai’s office for a response to Cantwell’s speech today and will provide an update if we get one.

Pai would have to leave the commission at the end of this year if he isn’t re-confirmed. While unlikely, the FCC would be temporarily left with a 2-2 deadlock between Republicans and Democrats if that happened. Trump would be able to nominate a replacement, and the Senate would decide whether to confirm the nominee to fill the empty slot, so replacing Pai wouldn’t necessarily save the net neutrality rules.

Don’t erect toll lanes, Cantwell says

Net neutrality rules prohibit fixed and mobile Internet providers from blocking or throttling lawful online content, and they ban paid prioritization deals in which websites would pay ISPs for better access to Internet users. Pai’s proposal could eliminate all of those rules and various other consumer protections enabled by the common carrier classification.

“Chairman Pai wants to make it possible for those big telecom and cable companies to erect toll lanes that would further burden the nature of the Internet and the innovation this economy supports,” Cantwell said.

Net neutrality rules that allow businesses to thrive on the Internet are crucial for the economy and “millions of jobs,” Cantwell said. The rules protect businesses from having to pay extra fees to reach consumers over the Internet without having to go through a “slow lane,” she said. Allowing paid fast lanes would create “barriers that are wedges between businesses and their consumers, between doctors and their patients, between industry solution providers and the customers they are trying to serve,” she said.

Cantwell asked fellow senators to imagine what would have happened to the telephone industry decades ago “if you couldn’t get access because someone had decided, ‘I’m going to let the highest bidder rule the roost.'”

Besides taking aim at net neutrality rules, Pai has “been involved in dismantling the rules that preserve the diversity of content in media ownership, potentially negatively impacting forever the number and variety of voices in the media market,” Cantwell said. This is apparently a reference to the FCC decision to roll back broadcast TV station ownership limits, which could let the right-wing Sinclair Broadcast Group purchase Tribune Media Company and reach 72 percent of TV-owning households in the US.

Net neutrality advocacy group Free Press gathered more than 10,000 signatures on a petition to “fire FCC Chairman Ajit Pai.” In addition to Cantwell, Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) has said he will use Pai’s re-confirmation as an opportunity to debate the chair’s opposition to net neutrality and consumer broadband privacy rules.

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