December 1, 2020

US telecom regulator says will step out when Biden steps in

The chief US telecom regulator said Monday he will leave his post the same day President-elect Joe Biden takes office, clearing the way for a shift in oversight of the internet.

Ajit Pai’s tenure as chair of the Federal Communications Commission has been defined by a pro-industry stance, particularly in regard to “net neutrality,” leaving telecommunications firms free to block or throttle traffic.

Pai’s decision to step down on January 20, Biden’s inauguration day, clears the way for the creation of an FCC board dominated by Democrats who may elevate the interests of users and entrepreneurs above those of telecom titans.

His departure also comes amid intense debate in Washington over internet regulations including social media liability and online privacy.

One key area of contention is “Section 230” of a 1996 law which protects online services from liability related to content posted by others. The provision has been a target of both the left and right, even as digital rights activists warn it is the cornerstone of online free speech.

Biden has said Section 230 should be “revoked” but has offered no details of any plan to reform the legislation.

US President Donald Trump appointed Pai as FCC chairman in 2017.

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“I am proud of how productive this commission has been,” Pai said in a statement announcing his resignation.

“This FCC has not shied away from making tough choices.”

Under his leadership, the FCC scrapped a 2015 order aimed at forcing broadband firms to treat all online traffic equally after a politically-charged debate over net neutrality debate.

Backers of net neutrality argue the rules, which were challenged in court, prevented powerful internet providers like Comcast and AT&T from shutting out rival services and creating “fast” and “slow” lanes for online services.

But others worried that such rules were a heavy-handed effort to reclassify internet providers as utilities, and which could discourage investment in the fast-evolving sector.

Pai said the change in the approach to net neutrality taken by the FCC was part of a return to “a light-touch regulatory framework.”

The agency also endorsed a merger of telecom operators T-Mobile and Sprint, reducing the number of competitors in the US market. The combined company has promised to invest in super-fast 5G telecom networks, which have been lagging in the US market.