Ajit Pai is stepping down as chairman of the FCC. What happens next?

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There is nothing particularly controversial about the news of Pai’s impending resignation, which contrasts with much of his tenure. To be fair to the outgoing president, his tenure produced some positive changes, such as a push to release documents and draft proposals before regulatory sessions, not after. That said, in our opinion, Pai has always fallen on the wrong side of many of the biggest decisions of our time, and despite his choice to step down, his legacy leaves us wondering where we’re headed.


Note: Between 2001 and 2003 Pai worked as an associate general counsel for Verizon, which later became the owner of Engadget. That said, Verizon has no influence on what we publish.


If there’s one thing Pai is known for – other than his cartoonish mug of Reese – it’s the way he set out to dismantle the net neutrality protections put in place by his immediate predecessor, Tom Wheeler. In 2015 and under Wheeler’s leadership, the FCC officially classified broadband internet as a public service under Title II of the Communications Act 1934, with all additional controls and regulations that flow from it. In short, the Democratic wing of the FCC has ensured that ISPs cannot unfairly slow, block or prioritize network performance – all data should be treated the same.

Just months after President Trump was appointed FCC chairman in 2017, Pai – a staunch critic of the Open Internet Order – abandoned him altogether. Citing the stringency of government regulations and a potential boost to investment in broadband infrastructure, Pai urged the FCC to adopt a “light” policy framework more reminiscent of Internet surveillance around 1996, when a fraction of ‘a fraction of Americans in fact were. online. Since then, the cost of Internet access has continued to tick on the rise and the ISPs apparently have no qualms enforce potentially lucrative data caps while a pandemic forces people to work from home and stay indoors when possible.

Pai’s tenure as president also saw him halt an effort to make prison phone calls less expensive, make it harder for Lifeline wireless service providers to provide free data to low-income customers, and loosen the cap on the number of stations a broadcaster can own, which puts at risk the diversity of voices in the market, especially in local news. More recently, Pai’s FCC found itself in the middle of a much larger conversation about corporate responsibility, conservative biases, and Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.

In short, President Trump has set his sights on the social media titans because of their tendency to report the bogus claims he makes, and very strongly wants to repeal the 26 words of the CDA that effectively prevent companies like Facebook and Twitter to be responsible. for the content their users share. At the President’s urging – and with the help of an official petition from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration – Pai agreed to move forward with “clarifying” Section 230 protections, despite a considerable body of critical who maintains the FCC does not have the authority to do so.

Suffice to say that we will not miss Mr. Pai. But what happens next?

Well, once Pai officially resigns on the 20th, President Biden will likely select one of the two current Democratic commissioners – most likely Jessica Rosenworcel – to take on the interim presidency until the administration finds a more solution. permed. It should be noted that Rosenworcel was already widely regarded as one of the firsts for the post, so there is a chance that she could be appointed the full president immediately. (That would only make her the second woman to lead the FCC; the first was her former colleague, Mignon Clyburn.) As of 2021, however, the vaunted main seat seems a little less important than some of the empty seats. .

In August of this year, President Trump – for whatever reason – revoked his re-appointment as Michael O’Rielly, a Republican who had served on the committee since 2013. The White House has never offered a reason for it. position change, but it should be noted that two days after the president called on the NTIA to ask the FCC to clarify the scope of Section 230, O’Rielly publicly revealed his disagreement with Trump’s assessment:

“The First Amendment protects us from speech limits imposed by government and not by private actors – and we should all reject requests, in the name of the First Amendment, for private actors to organize or publish speeches in a certain way. “, he declared at a lunch organized by the Media Institute. “Like it or not, the protections of the First Amendment apply to corporations, especially when they participate in editorial decision-making.”

The remainder of O’Rielly’s term ends in January, along with Pai’s, at which point the FCC will appear somewhat gaunt. Rosenworcel will remain, as will his Democratic colleague Geoffrey Starks and their Republican counterpart Brendan Carr. Biden will likely end up with a Democratic majority eventually, but in the short term, how quickly the FCC could help his administration achieve political goals like making broadband internet cheaper and more accessible remains uncertain for several reasons.

On the one hand, President Trump has appointed a new Republican Commissioner: Nathan Simington, one of the architects of the NTIA petition designed to push for changes to Section 230. If the Senate approves the president’s choice – what could happen from next week – the FCC will be split in half along party lines, leading to a situation where key decisions could be blocked until Biden can fill the last vacant post with a third Democratic commissioner.

The exact simplicity of this process will depend on the results of two Senate second-round races in Georgia. Democrats must clinch both seats to reach the 50-50 mark, at which point the Vice President serves as a tiebreaker. Meanwhile, if Republicans are successful in retaining the Senate, it is possible that they will try to block or block some committee appointments.

All of this leaves the FCC at a crucial inflection point. The days and weeks ahead will decide whether the committee’s path turns towards restoring net neutrality and other highlights of the Democratic agenda, or keeping Mr Pai’s conservative work through the partisan stalemate and the Senate game. While we’re still waiting to see what shape the next FCC ultimately takes, we can take some comfort in the fact that Pai – and this mug – is irrelevant.

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