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Trump’s FCC chairman is pitching Internet deregulation as a return to Bill Clinton’s policy

The Clintons in 1992 (Greg Gibson/AP)

President Trump treated “Bill” — as in Clinton — like a four-letter word during his campaign for the White House, but now Trump's FCC chairman is invoking the 42nd president's name in a positive way to help sell a plan to repeal a major Internet regulation.

“We're going to return to President Clinton's framework, which existed from 1996 all the way until 2015,” Ajit Pai said Monday on “Fox & Friends.” “Under that light-touch, market-based framework, we saw tons of investment in infrastructure. We saw companies like Facebook and Apple and Google become worldwide names. We saw consumers going online in unprecedented numbers. That is the kind of successful framework that was jettisoned in 2015, when the Obama administration imposed heavy-handed rules.”

Pai was talking about an Obama-era FCC rule mandating net neutrality, the principle that Internet providers should make all content available at the same speed. Consumers' connection speeds still vary, but the current regulation prohibits an Internet provider such as Comcast from artificially speeding up some content (like, say, videos on Hulu, a service Comcast partly owns) or slowing down other content (like, say, videos on Netflix, a Hulu competitor).

Pai argued that the net-neutrality regulation is unnecessary, saying “the solution there is more competition.” The idea is that Comcast could handicap Netflix to give Hulu an advantage but wouldn't because consumers would take their business to another Internet provider, such as Verizon or AT&T, instead.

Defenders of net neutrality contend that the real threat is to smaller companies — a video-streaming start-up, for instance, that can only compete with Hulu and Netflix if Internet providers distribute everyone's content at the same speed. If Hulu and Netflix were allowed to buy faster distribution at a price that is cost-prohibitive for the start-up, then the start-up would fail, and consumers would have fewer options.

The FCC will vote on the net-neutrality regulation next month. Pai said he expects his repeal plan to be approved, 3-2, on a party-line vote.

How to argue about net neutrality (and why you should)

Pai's effort to frame deregulation as a return to Clinton's policy is an attempt to blunt criticism by suggesting that the Trump administration's view of the Internet aligns with that of a previous, Democratic administration.

But the Internet has changed a lot since Clinton left office in January 2001 and though the former president has not weighed in publicly on net neutrality, Hillary Clinton strongly favors preserving the regulation. Last week, she cheered a Democratic FCC commissioner who tweeted that it is “time to save” the rule.

Pai's calculus appears to be that the Clinton name will help build broad support for his plan. His goal might be harder to accomplish with Hillary Clinton actively undermining it.