DAVID GREENE, HOST:
So if you like streaming shows on Netflix or Hulu, these next few months may be crucial for you. That is because the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission wants to loosen government oversight of internet service providers. The current rules, commonly referred to as net neutrality, require internet service providers to treat all internet traffic equally. So what does that mean for you? Well, your cable internet company can't, as of now, slow down your Netflix and, say, speed up its own streaming service to try and frustrate you into watching something that they want you to watch. These rules were put into place two years ago after this massive debate that inspired a record number of public comments. I spoke yesterday to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai. He says he supports an open internet.
AJIT PAI: If you look at how the internet has developed over the last 20 years, I think part of the reason why we have the digital economy that's the envy of the world is precisely because we've had a free and open internet that's benefited everybody.
GREENE: But he explained why he wants now to change how the regulations are enforced.
PAI: The FCC in a party line vote imposed what is known as Title II, a 1934 set of regulations developed during the Roosevelt administration to regulate Ma Bell, the AT&T telephone monopoly. And the argument that I've made is that these Title II regulations are like the proverbial sledgehammer being wielded against the flea, that they are very prescriptive, and they don't match the internet marketplace, which is much more dynamic than the telephone monopoly was back in the 1930s. And going forward, I would like to embrace the Clinton-era approach, which we had from the 1990s until 2015. Let the marketplace evolve organically, and if you see any harm to consumers, then take targeted action to address that problem.
GREENE: Your critics would say that you talk a good game in saying that you believe in net neutrality but that you're actually weakening or proposing to weaken some of the really important enforcement that is crucial. So let me just see if we can deal with a specific. I'm sort of a "House Of Cards" guy.
GREENE: What's your favorite show to stream?
PAI: There have been many of them. I just got done streaming "Broadchurch." I streamed "Game Of Thrones" - regularly sacrifice sleep in order to see some of these shows that I like.
GREENE: (Laughter) You're a streaming guy.
PAI: Oh, absolutely.
GREENE: OK. So one principle of net neutrality is - as I understand it - is I get to watch my "House Of Cards" at the same speed as anything else. My internet company can't, say, take money from a competitor of Netflix to make that stream faster and slow down my episode of "House Of Cards." Is that a fair way to look at this?
PAI: First and foremost, we want to make sure that all content that is lawful on the internet can be accessed by consumers. That's a bedrock protection of the open internet that I think everybody would agree with. Secondly, we want to make sure that we have the ability to allow all kinds of streaming companies, others who create content on the internet, to be able to reach consumers. And so on a case-by-case basis, let's figure out what types of conduct that would harm consumers or innovators and take action if we see something like that arise.
GREENE: But couldn't, say, a big company like Comcast or Verizon figure out a way without enforcements in place to make more money by favoring its own streaming services?
PAI: I don't believe so for a couple of different reasons. Number one, especially in the internet age, consumers are able to complain to the Federal Trade Commission authorities, the Justice Department, the FCC, other state agencies as well. And secondly, these agencies on their own have the ability to initiate investigations. And moreover, we have to remember that that pre-emptive regulation comes at a cost. Those very small providers that we want to inject some competition into the marketplace, those are the ones that will be disproportionately squeezed by pre-emptive regulation. And so to the extent that you're worried about the big players, we have to remember that a solution to that is to get more small players into the marketplace.
GREENE: Well, let me just ask - I mean, your bio on the FCC's website says that the agency proceeds best on the basis of consensus. If public opinion would prefer to treat the internet like a utility, are you willing to vote the other way?
PAI: We have to make a decision based on what is called substantial evidence. We have to take a look at the record and have enough of a factual grounding for our policy choice to be able to see that the agency made a reasoned decision. And so that's the aim that we have under this FCC is to make sure that we proceed in a way that preserves the free and open internet and preserves that incentive to invest in networks. And those are the twin goals that we're going to be focused on.
GREENE: Chairman Pai, thank you so much for taking the time, real pleasure talking to you.
PAI: It's been a pleasure talking to you as well.
GREENE: That's Ajit Pai. He is the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission.
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