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Trump taps net neutrality critic to lead the FCC

Ajit Pai, the new chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, has been a staunch critic of Democratic efforts aimed at breaking the dominance of some of America's biggest Internet providers, including AT&T, Comcast and Verizon. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg News)

President Trump has named Ajit Pai, an advocate of deregulation and a critic of the government's net neutrality rules, as the next chairman of the Federal Communications Commission.

Pai's new position will give him control over the nation's most powerful telecom and cable regulator, with a 2-to-1 Republican majority that is widely expected to begin undoing some of former president Barack Obama's most significant tech policies.

The Indian American who grew up in Kansas had until now been a sitting Republican commissioner at the FCC — meaning he will not need to be confirmed by the Senate before serving as the agency's 34th chairman. Pai was a staunch critic of Democratic efforts aimed at breaking the dominance of some of America's biggest Internet providers, including AT&T, Comcast and Verizon.

“I look forward to working with the new Administration, my colleagues at the Commission, members of Congress and the American public to bring the benefits of the digital age to all Americans,” Pai said in a statement Monday.

A federal court recently ruled that high-speed internet is a utility, not a luxury. The Washington Post's Brian Fung explains why net neutrality matters to consumers. (Video: Whitney Leaming/The Washington Post)

Although consistent with Trump's largely deregulatory agenda, Pai's appointment breaks from the president's habit of appointing Washington outsiders to key roles. A former lawyer for Verizon and the Justice Department, Pai is well-versed in the minutiae of America's telecom law and frequently challenged his predecessor, former chairman Tom Wheeler, over the legality of Democratic proposals.

Although he operates comfortably in the weeds of telecom policy, Pai also peppers his speeches with references to sports, movies and other aspects of pop culture; like Trump, he is an avid Twitter user.

The FCC has evolved to play a significant role in the affairs of businesses and consumers. In recent years, it has moved to block megamergers such as Comcast's bid to buy Time Warner Cable, drawn up new privacy regulations for Internet providers and pushed to help low-income Americans buy mobile data service.

Pai dissented from many of these decisions, and others as well. By contrast, he has pushed for streamlining the FCC's operations, accelerating the rollout of airwaves for mobile broadband and knocking down regulatory barriers that deter companies from investing in wired Internet.

Consumer advocates on Monday urged Pai to safeguard consumer protections and prevent large corporations from unreasonably raising prices.

“Chairman Pai has a record of promising to undo the agency’s landmark 2015 net neutrality rules as well as targeting consumer privacy while refusing to stand against consolidation among telecommunications and media giants,” the advocacy organization Public Knowledge said in a release.

Industry organizations leapt to Pai's defense Monday, in some cases welcoming the Republican's “common-sense philosophy.”

“We stand ready to assist Chairman Pai and his colleagues in their effort to promote policies which ensure that America remains a global internet, communications and entertainment leader,” said NCTA — The Internet & Television Association, one of the country's top cable industry trade groups.

Policy analysts widely expect the FCC to roll back its net neutrality rules under Pai. The rules seek to prevent Internet providers from unfairly benefiting themselves at the expense of smaller online companies, particularly as more telecom behemoths such as Verizon and AT&T expand into digital content. Pai has long criticized the rules as an example of government overreach. In a December speech, he said it was time to fire up the “regulatory weed whacker.”

Pai's opposition to the rules could give Republicans in Congress the political room to craft a legislative deal with Democrats who view net neutrality protections as a key to preserving competition, policy analysts said. On Monday, Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, said he is committed to drawing up a “long-term legislative solution to protecting the open Internet.”

Although Pai does not need Senate confirmation to be named chairman, he will need to be renominated and confirmed by the Senate sometime this year to continue serving on the FCC, due to the timing of his existing term.