FCC Head Ajit Pai Stepping Down, Raises Net Neutrality Hopes

internet net neutrality (C) Peshkova - Shutterstock

What now for US net neutrality, as Trump appointee Ajit Pai, announces he will step down from FCC when Joe Biden is sworn in

Federal Communications Commission (FCC) chairman Ajit Pai has confirmed he will step down from his post on 20 January, the day when President-elect Joe Biden is inaugurated.

His departure will mean that the US communications regulator will quickly revert once again to a Democratic majority.

And his departure will also likely have significant implications on net neutrality, an issue that defined Pai’s term as chairman of the FCC.

Standing down

Pai’s term was slated to expire in June 2021, and his decision to leave means that the FCC could reach a Democratic majority sooner than it would otherwise be able to.

Biden has the power to select Commissioners, but they have to be confirmed by the US Senate.

“It has been the honor of a lifetime to serve at the Federal Communications Commission, including as Chairman of the FCC over the past four years,” Pai announced. “I am grateful to President Trump for giving me the opportunity to lead the agency in 2017, to President Obama for appointing me as a Commissioner in 2012, and to Senate Majority Leader McConnell and the Senate for twice confirming me.”

“To be the first Asian-American to chair the FCC has been a particular privilege,” he added. “As I often say: only in America.“I also deeply appreciate the chance to have worked alongside the FCC’s talented staff. They are the agency’s best assets, and they have performed heroically, especially during the pandemic.”

“Last but not least, I want to thank my family for all they have done to enable me to serve at the agency,” said Pai. “The public service of one generally results from the private sacrifice of many, and I’m grateful for their love and support.”

Controversial figure

Pai had been appointed by President Trump in 2017 and right from the outset he proved to be controversial, after he reversed the 2015 Net Neutrality regulations, brought in under President Obama (and VP Biden), as well as former former FCC chairman Tom Wheeler (also a democrat).

Pai’s decision to reverse Net Neutrality regulations was felt by many as damaging the future of an open Internet in the United States. It meant that ISPs were able to block or slow down Internet access to certain services.

This prompted fears that consumers would have to pay for more expensive packages to stream Netflix, or tech companies will have to negotiate deals directly with providers. Businesses could also be restricted in their use of some cloud services.

Indeed, the FCC vote was opposed by many in the tech industry and beyond, and so controversial was the decision, that in January 2018 Pai, who had attended the previous five CES shows, was forced to abruptly cancelled his appearance at the tech industry trade show because of death threats.

MWC 2017 FCC Ajit Pai

Net neutrality

In February 2019 the US federal appeals court began to to hear a lawsuit about the FCC decision to roll-back net neutrality laws in the United States.

In February 2020, the US Appeals Court ruled that it would not reconsider overturning a ruling made last October that largely upheld the repeal of net neutrality rules.

The case had been brought after a group of 22 state attorneys general and the District of Columbia had asked the appeals court to reinstate the rules, as well as to block the FCC’s effort to pre-empt states from imposing their own rules guaranteeing an open internet.

Mozilla and other tech groups were also part of the court case.

It now remains to be seen how quickly the democrat FCC will vote on restoring the net neutrality rules.