• Campbell Easton

Net neutrality debate gets personal as FCC chair's family targeted


FCC chairman Ajit Pai whose house has been targeted by demonstrators Photo: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/GETTY IMAGES

The debate around net neutrality in the United States has become personal, as internet freedom activists have begun protesting outside the house of United States Federal Communications Commission (FCC) chairman Ajit Pai.

It is being reported that pizza is being delivered to the Pai residence as frequently as every fifteen minutes, and signs have been placed outside the house, directly addressing Pai's children. One sign reading: “Dad murdered democracy in cold blood. And for what?”

In an interview with Fox and Friends last night, Pai said: “I understand that people are passionate about policy, but the one thing in America that should remain sacred is that families, wives and kids should remain out of it. And stop harassing us at our homes.”

Cardboard messages outside the Pai household

Just over a week ago the FCC announced a mid-December vote that could repeal critical protections of net neutrality and grant massive power to American service providers to reshape the way consumers use the internet. In a 210-page document entitled Restoring Internet Freedom the FCC called for a vote on December 14 that would affect the manner in which internet service providers in the US are classified, shifting them from being classified as common carriers, similar to public utilities, to "information services".

Pai, who used to work as a lawyer for US Telecoms giant Verizon, has described the shift as a move back to a "soft-touch" regulatory approach. In an interview with Fox News last week Pai asked the question, “Do you want the internet to be governed by engineers and entrepreneurs, or do you want it governed by lawyers and bureaucrats here in Washington?” Ostensibly the goal of the vote is to remove overbearing regulations and barriers stifling the competitiveness of the US telecoms industry. However, critics argue that removing said regulations could strip away critical consumer protections.

The regulations in question are the ones which enforce net neutrality, essentially the principle that service providers need to treat all data accessed through their infrastructure as equal. Under these regulations a service provider is forced to give the same bandwidth to data from established platforms as it does to small startups seeking to disrupt the incumbents. The principles of net neutrality are almost universally regarded as having been critical to the success of many of the tech giants of the last decade. Netflix, for example, was able to dethrone broadcasting giants through democratic access to streaming bandwidth. Under the proposed regime, however, a service provider could prioritise certain sources of data in a way that could reduce the disruptive ability of small players, or even force the consumer to pay much more to enjoy services that they currently get for free.

FCC's decision to roll-back net neutrality garnered 22-million submissions

In 2015 the FCC, in the face of overwhelming public opinion by way of 4-million comments from concerned citizens, put in place regulations to protect net neutrality that are commonly referred to as Title II. However in an address in April 2017, Pai argued that these regulations had reduced the investment of cable companies in their infrastructure, arguing that Title II was implemented for political reasons. In May, one month later, pro-net neutrality group Free Press published a report which showed that no major United States Telecoms company had ever told shareholders that Title II had impacted its investment. In fact many had openly stated the opposite, that the regulations had no malicious impact on business.

Public participation around changing regulations around net neutrality garnered 22-million submissions to the FCC's website. Many of these were later revealed to be duplicates and part of online spam-campaigns, with studies showing that as few as 17% were authentic comments. However, of this 17%, the majority were overwhelmingly in favour of net neutrality.

Pai's vote is expected to go ahead in mid-December, and is expected to pass on a party line.


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