Net Neutrality Detractor Ajit Pai Replaces Wheeler As FCC Chairman

As of Monday, the Federal Communications Commission has a new chairman: Republican Ajit Pai.

Pai replaces Democrat Tom Wheeler, who stepped down on Jan. 20, inauguration day.

The newly appointed chairman is far from supportive of most of his predecessor’s policies, including the recently passed broadband privacy regs and net neutrality.

Pai famously stated in December that it’s time for the FCC to “fire up the weed-whacker” and handle what he called the “regulatory underbrush.”

In announcing news of his appointment on Twitter, Pai said he looks “forward to working with the new administration, @FCC colleagues, members of #Congress and the public on behalf of all Americans.”

Responses to his tweet were mixed – some congratulatory, some worried he’d cater to the interests of the major carriers and some fearful that he’d dismantle net neutrality.

Pai at the helm puts Wheeler’s legacy on very shaky ground, and it’s likely that the ISP privacy laws will face a tough challenge – much to the delight of ad industry trade orgs, including the ANA, IAB and NAI, which filed a joint petition for reconsideration with the FCC in early January.

(Update: The ANA officially welcomed Pai in a blog post, calling him “a very thoughtful leader who understands the critical role advertising plays as a financial foundation for the online and media marketplace.”)

Pai is a proponent of the argument that edge providers like Google, Facebook and Netflix shouldn’t be treated differently than broadband providers under the FCC’s purview.

“The FCC tilts the regulator playing field,” Pai said during a vote in March where the commission voted to approve Wheeler’s ISP privacy proposal 3-2. “It makes little sense to give some companies greater leeway under the law than others when they all have access to that very same personal data. … Slanted regulation is bad enough, but illogically slanted legislation is even worse.”

Pai has also made his feelings known about net neutrality (he’s not a fan). He cast a dissenting vote when the FCC reclassified ISPs as common carriers, which gave it the authority to pursue its privacy regulations in the first place.

In addition to all of that, Pai will play a central role in giving the thumbs up or down on cable and telephone company mergers. Although Trump was vocal in his antipathy toward the Time Warner/AT&T deal and vowed not to let it go through if he became president, Pai is believed to be a proponent of corporate interests and a likely supporter of that potential acquisition.

Although Pai now sits at the FCC’s helm at the pleasure of President Trump, he will need to be reconfirmed by the Senate when his current term expires at the end of 2017.

It’s been a time of turmoil for the FCC, as with most regulatory agencies experiencing Trump-induced shakeups.

With the departure of Wheeler last week and the Senate’s failure in December to reconfirm Democrat Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel for another term, the FCC’s ranks had been looking a little bare. Obama reconfirmed Rosenworcel in early January, which means that Pai now leads a commission of three: Republican Commissioner Michael O’Rielly, Democratic Commissioner Mignon Clyburn and Rosenworcel. An appointment for the fourth commissioner slot will likely soon follow.

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