The Trump administration has signaled that it stands behind efforts by the Federal Communications Commission and its chairman, Ajit Pai, to roll back the agency's net neutrality regulations for Internet providers.
Speaking to reporters Tuesday, administration officials said that while rules can be helpful, the Obama administration “went about this the wrong way.”
“We support the FCC chair's efforts to review and consider rolling back these rules,” said deputy White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, “and believe that the best way to get fair rules for everyone is for Congress to take action and create regulatory and economic certainty.”
The FCC is seeking to undo rules that it approved in 2015 that ban the blocking and slowing of websites by Internet providers such as Verizon and AT&T. The regulations were enacted to prevent carriers from unfairly funneling their customers toward proprietary sites and services and potentially disadvantaging newer start-ups. But carriers say that the rules are unnecessarily burdensome, prevent them from finding new ways of making money and discourage them from upgrading their networks to be better and faster.
Internet providers have said they support the principles behind net neutrality but oppose the specific FCC rules that attempt to enforce them; public interest groups argue that weakening or repealing the rules will make them far less effective at protecting consumers.
Sanders's critique of the current rules are consistent with statements President Trump has previously made. But Trump's renewed support for rolling back the rules comes a day after a procedural deadline at the FCC, and as millions of commenters have filed their own feedback on the agency's proposal. More than 3.5 million comments have been filed in the past 30 days, out of a total of about 9 million. It's an issue that cuts across party lines, with even some members of Trump's base opposing him on the issue.
The administration's move recalls similar efforts by the White House, during the Obama administration, to make its opinion known on the issue of net neutrality. Then-President Barack Obama sought to influence the outcome of the debate by advocating strong FCC rules. He created a YouTube video and website and submitted formal comments to the FCC; critics soon objected to what they said was an inappropriate attempt by Obama to alter the outcome of events.
“The process raises serious questions about the president's inappropriate influence over what is supposed to be an independent agency that derives its authority from Congress and not the White House,” Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) said in a letter to the FCC criticizing the matter.
The Trump administration has not gone as far as Obama. Trump has not created a YouTube video on the issue, for example. And Sanders stopped short of advocating a specific policy for net neutrality, simply ending by calling on Congress to develop legislation that could resolve the debate among policymakers.
Still, some analysts say, any attempt by a White House to address pending FCC matters should be out of bounds. It was wrong when Obama asserted himself, and it would be wrong for Trump to do so now, said Scott Wallsten, an economist and president of the Technology Policy Institute.
“If the agency is independent, then the executive branch should stay out, plain and simple,” he said.
Sanders's calls for congressional action echo recent remarks by broadband industry officials, who have said legislation represents the best hope for approving lasting net neutrality rules. So far, the prospects of a congressional compromise have been slim; Democrats appear more interested in turning net neutrality into a campaign issue than coming to the negotiating table.
Critics of the FCC's current proposal have urged members of the public to call their lawmakers, even though there is currently no net neutrality legislation under consideration. Meanwhile, Republicans lack the votes to pass a bill on their own.