The net neutrality comment period is over, and the Federal Communications Commission received close to 22 million responses. The majority of those commenting on the FCC website were in favor of keeping current net neutrality rules in place. But if the FCC proposal is passed, the Title II classification that has kept net neutrality in place for two years will be reversed.
The man at the center of the free internet controversy is Ajit Pai, the chairman of the FCC. He's taken an aggressive stance against the open internet and supports broadband companies having more say in how the internet is regulated.
But lately, there’s been a change in the discussion about net neutrality. The controversy isn’t going away, and as the decade-long debate wears on, it’s increasingly partisan, which means the rules underpinning the way the internet works are at risk of changing every time there’s a new administration and a new FCC chair. To that end, lobbyists, industry insiders, and even some politicians are starting to advocate for legislation that could settle the issue once and for all — or at least for longer than the next chairman’s tenure. Marketplace Tech host Molly Wood asked Pai about his ideas for a long-term solution to the net neutrality debate. Below is an edited transcript of their conversation.
Wood: You seem very insulated from the storm. I mean, people are concerned. I think consumers are worried that the FCC is taking a different tone. That there's a really different kind of rhetoric. People are just worried about the future of the internet, right? Setting aside everything else that's going on, do you see that? Do you feel that?
Pai: I understand there's some issues that are going to be exceptionally controversial and that's the way it is under any FCC. But we're going to keep focused on the important missions that we've got here. Closing the digital divide, preserving the free and open internet, protecting consumers, promoting public safety. And I think over time these results will speak for themselves, and I'm confident that some of that controversy will fade into the background.
Wood: You're my third FCC commissioner, the third time I've talked about this issue. And I think we're starting to see a conversation about whether there should be a legislative solution. So that it doesn't sort of ping pong back and forth between FCC commissioners. What do you think about that?
Pai: Well a few years ago after one of the court rulings in 2014, I suggested that, you know, I think Congress would be well-positioned to take hold of this issue and just figure out what the rules of the road are going to be long-term. And I think in the past couple of months, we've seen increasingly a desire from all sides of the debate to involve members of Congress. And obviously if Congress sets the rules in statute, then the FCC, the American public, is duty-bound to follow it. And so we'll see what they do in the time to come.
Wood: Do you have any idea what that might look like or is that like an even farther off possibility than consensus?
Pai: I think it's obviously within Congress' purview. I'm not privy to some of the discussions they're having. But it seems like there is an interest in doing it.
Wood: Do you think it would be a better long-term solution?
Pai: Oh absolutely. I think that Congress, if you look at the Communications Act, it's helpful for Congress to set out that blueprint for the FCC in whatever area it is because then you have some certainty as to what the rules are going to be and after all to the extent that Congress reflects the considered judgment of the populace, and they're representing the populace, it's important for them I think to say what the law is, so to speak. And just to let people know, one way or the other, these are the rules.
Wood: This is the regulatory framework.
Pai: Yeah. I think it's especially helpful, particularly in an area like technology which changes so quickly that, sometimes I go back and read random provisions of the Communications Act. I know it's pretty boring but it's really amazing to see how some provisions of the Act are. I mean, they must have been very important in that moment of time, but they've been so quickly outpaced by by technological developments, and even here at the FCC some of our rules are on the books for many, many years and you just wonder why they were first adopted.
I remember when I first came on in 2012 as a commissioner, one of the first things I voted on was the repeal of regulation first imposed by the Telegraph division in 1936 requiring the maintenance of hard copies of certain money order transfers. And you just wonder "gosh how did this ever come to be?" But now if you say telegraph or even the fax machine who will look at you as if you're you know from a different era.
Wood: Is that the potential downside to a legislative solution? That the understanding might not be there or that the rules might not last?
Pai: That's always the trade off with legislation is that you're capturing a snapshot of the marketplace in a moment in time. And so that snapshot can be yellowed with age and so that tension for Congress is always whether to make legislative rules very specific in which case they might become outmoded or to be more general and allow more flexibility. But in that case you might have more room for interpretation and less certainty, and so that's sort of the classic legislative problem that the elected officials will have to sort out.
Listen to our extended interview with Ajit Pai here.