Internet users have made it clear to US telecom regulator Ajit Pai that his proposal to scrap net neutrality rules is unpopular with the masses. But with two weeks left before the Federal Communications Commission votes to eliminate net neutrality rules, Pai today blamed actress/singer Cher and other celebrities for boosting opposition to his plan.
In a speech hosted by conservative group R Street and the Lincoln Network, Pai also addressed criticism from MCU actor Mark Ruffalo, actress Alyssa Milano, former Star Trek actor George Takei, and Silicon Valley actor Kumail Nanjiani. Pai also claimed that Twitter and other Web companies pose a greater threat to Internet freedom than Internet service providers like Comcast.
Another concern I've heard is that the plan will harm rural and low-income Americans. Cher, for example, has tweeted that the Internet "Will Include LESS AMERICANS NOT MORE" if my proposal is adopted. But the opposite is true. The digital divide is all too real. Too many rural and low-income Americans are still unable to get high-speed Internet access. But heavy-handed Title II regulations just make the problem worse! They reduce investment in broadband networks, especially in rural and low-income areas. By turning back time, so to speak, and returning Internet regulation to the pre-2015 era, we will expand broadband networks and bring high-speed Internet access to more Americans, not fewer.
As in the above quote, Pai continues to claim that net neutrality rules decrease network investment despite the fact that ISPs themselves have told investors that the rules do not harm their network investments. Meanwhile, Pai's FCC is scaling back the federal Lifeline program that helps poor people purchase broadband.
Here's the Cher tweet that Pai was talking about:
Net Neutrality means
Trump can Change The
Internet It Will Include LESS AMERICANS NOT MORE
Will show you ONLY WHAT THEY WANT YOU TO SEE SLOWER AND MORE EXPENSIVE AT THEIR WHIMSEE LESS,CHARGED MORE…
— Cher (@cher) November 22, 2017
Ruffalo apparently got on Pai's nerves with this tweet:
— Mark Ruffalo (@MarkRuffalo) November 21, 2017
"These comments are absurd," Pai said. "Getting rid of government authority over the Internet is the exact opposite of authoritarianism. Government control is the defining feature of authoritarians, including the one in North Korea."
Milano earned a rebuke from the FCC chairman with this tweet:
THIS IS A HUGE DEAL.
— Alyssa Milano (@Alyssa_Milano) November 21, 2017
Pai's response to Milano was, "I'd like to see the evidence that America's democratic institutions were threatened by a Title I framework, as opposed to a Title II framework, during the Clinton Administration, the Bush Administration, and the first six years of the Obama Administration."
This is one of Pai's favorite arguments, one that we deconstructed back in May. In reality, returning to 1990s-era Internet regulation would require more of the Title II utility-style regulation that Pai abhors, not less.
"If this were Who's the Boss?, this would be an opportunity for Tony Danza to dish out some wisdom about the consequences of making things up," Pai said today.
Pai's attempt to cast net neutrality support as a Hollywood-driven phenomenon came on the same day that he released a "Myth vs. Fact" sheet that claims public comments to the FCC don't show significant support for net neutrality. Pai's office called it a "myth" that commenters "overwhelmingly want the FCC to preserve and protect net neutrality," arguing that fraudulent comments far outnumber legitimate ones.
That's true largely because the FCC imposed no real restrictions on comment uploads and took no steps to remove fraudulent comments from the record. But analyses of comments show that about 98 or 99 percent of "unique" comments oppose the net neutrality repeal.
Even one Republican senator, Susan Collins of Maine, has joined Democrats in opposing Pai's plan to repeal net neutrality rules.
While Pai had time today to blast celebrities, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman says Pai has refused to cooperate with an investigation into fraud in the FCC's public comments.
Pai attacks more celebrities
Actor George Takei got Pai's attention by tweeting out an article describing an Internet plan in Portugal that appears to show the Internet being divided up into cable TV-like packages, with the implication that "this would happen in the United States if the plan were adopted." Pai is right to push back on this claim. The Verge published an article last week explaining that the image of the Portuguese mobile plan has been distributed in a misleading way. The Portuguese plan is similar to zero-rating implementations that give consumers extra mobile data for certain websites, which are already allowed in the US.
Pai also bristled at Nanjiani's claim that, after the net neutrality repeal, "We will never go back to a free Internet."
"But here's the simple truth," Pai said. "We had a free and open Internet for two decades before 2015, and we'll have a free and open Internet going forward."
Pai has claimed that net neutrality rules aren't needed because ISPs can be trusted not to block or throttle Internet content—even though they have done just that in the past before rules were in place and occasionally afterwards.
Pai does see threats to Internet openness, but not from ISPs. Twitter, he said, "appears to have a double standard when it comes to suspending or de-verifying conservative users' accounts as opposed to those of liberal users." Other websites "routinely block or discriminate against content they don't like," he wrote.
Pai's speech angered Incompas, a trade group that represents Twitter and other companies.
"Preventing hate speech and bullying behavior online is not the same thing as allowing cable companies to block, throttle, and extort money from consumers and the websites they love," Incompas CEO Chip Pickering said in a statement today. "Twitter is an amazing platform for left, right, and center. Donald Trump might not be President without it, and Chairman Pai's plan to kill net neutrality will put Comcast and AT&T in charge of his Twitter account."
Of course, the FCC isn't the primary regulator of Twitter and websites. It is the primary regulator of Internet service providers that have to follow net neutrality rules. By deregulating broadband, Pai's FCC is relinquishing some regulatory authority to the Federal Trade Commission, but FTC enforcement will depend largely on ISPs to make voluntary commitments to uphold net neutrality.
If you're hoping for a late change before next month's FCC vote, temper your expectations.
"[W]hen you get past the wild accusations, fear-mongering, and hysteria, here's the boring bottom line: the plan to restore Internet freedom would return us to the light touch, market-based approach under which the Internet thrived," Pai said today. "And that's why I am asking my colleagues to vote for it on December 14."