Change in FCC leadership may renew net neutrality battle

Meghan McCarty Carino Dec 1, 2020
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FCC Chairman Ajit Pai speaks before a Senate panel in June. The commission's balance of power may change under the Biden administration. Chip Somodevilla/AFP via Getty Images

Change in FCC leadership may renew net neutrality battle

Meghan McCarty Carino Dec 1, 2020
Heard on:
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai speaks before a Senate panel in June. The commission's balance of power may change under the Biden administration. Chip Somodevilla/AFP via Getty Images
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The chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, Ajit Pai, announced Monday he will be stepping down when President-elect Joe Biden takes office in January.

The departure of Pai, a Republican, would leave open the possibility of a Democratic majority on the commission and is expected to spark a number of new policy fights. One of those is likely to be over the issue of “net neutrality,” the principle that internet service providers must treat all data the same and not prioritize or penalize certain content with faster or slower transmission speeds.

Under Pai’s leadership, the FCC voted to roll back net neutrality rules in 2017. That ignited fears of stifled competition. Imagine Comcast, which partially owns Hulu, slowing down access to a competitor like Netflix.

“I just haven’t seen this idea that there’s a lot of throttling of content,” said Shane Tews, a fellow with the American Enterprise Institute. “We’ve proven that that wasn’t a problem.”

However, David Choffnes, a professor at Northeastern University who studies network performance, said just because it hasn’t happened yet doesn’t mean it won’t in the future.

“We shouldn’t decide whether net neutrality or the lack of it has been successful based on a few years,” Choffnes said. “Historically, when we see opportunities for an unlevel playing field, that’s taken advantage of.”

The stakes have never been higher around fairness and equity in broadband access, said Kevin Werbach, a business ethics professor at the Wharton School.

He added, “Broadband’s an essential service, and it’s hard for anyone to disagree with that. Right now, we’ve seen just how vital it is. And we’ve also seen the challenges.”

Werbach said he would like to see Congress take up the issue so that the rules don’t keep changing with each new president.

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