The laws governing an open internet may not be laws much longer.
The Trump administration served notice on Thursday that its next move to deregulate broadband internet service companies would be to jettison the Obama administration’s net neutrality rules, which were intended to safeguard free expression online.
The net neutrality rules, approved by the Federal Communications Commission in 2015, aimed to preserve the open internet and ensure that it could not be divided into pay-to-play fast lanes for web and media companies that can afford it and slow lanes for everyone else.
Supporters of net neutrality have insisted the rules are necessary to protect equal access to content on the internet. Opponents said the rules unfairly subjected broadband internet suppliers like Verizon, AT&T, Comcast and Charter to utility-style regulation.
In a news conference, Sean Spicer, the White House spokesman, mentioned the net neutrality rules affecting telecommunications and cable internet services, noting that the Obama administration had “reclassified them as common carriers.”
Mr. Spicer said President Trump had “pledged to reverse this overreach.” The Obama-era rules, Mr. Spicer said, were an example of “bureaucrats in Washington” placing restrictions on one kind of company — internet service suppliers — and “picking winners and losers.”
Telecommunications and cable television companies fought being classified as common-carrier utility services, which are subject to anti-blocking and anti-discrimination rules. They said the classification opened the door to government interference that would ultimately reduce incentives to invest and would therefore result in higher prices and hurt consumers.
Mr. Spicer made his comments after Congress voted this week to complete its overturning of Obama-era internet privacy protections and to allow broadband companies to track and sell their customers’ online information with greater ease. The vote was seen as a prelude to further deregulation for broadband companies.
Mr. Spicer remarked on the rollback of privacy rules before he spoke more broadly about regulations on broadband internet services. President Trump, he said, will “continue to fight Washington red tape that stifles American innovation, job creation and economic growth.”
Mr. Trump earlier this year appointed Ajit Pai, a former lawyer for Verizon and a minority Republican member of the Federal Communications Commission, as chairman of the agency. Mr. Pai voted against the net neutrality rules as a commission member in 2015.
Since becoming chairman, Mr. Pai has indicated that he plans to either roll back or decline to enforce many consumer protection regulations created during the Obama administration, including those regarding net neutrality.
Getting rid of the net neutrality rules, policy experts said, will be more difficult than peeling away the privacy regulations. Congress, in a vote mainly along party lines, and by a narrow margin, overturned the privacy rules enacted last fall, using a streamlined process under the Congressional Review Act.
But that faster procedure will not apply to the net neutrality rules, which were approved by the F.C.C. two years ago, beyond the timetable for such reviews.
Another path to repeal would be for Mr. Pai, who now leads a Republican-majority commission, to revisit the issue at the F.C.C.
Politically, net neutrality might be a bigger challenge as well. When it was weighing the rules in 2014 and 2015, the F.C.C. received more than one million public comments. The vast majority of them endorsed strict nondiscrimination rules that supporters viewed as necessary to preserve the democratic ethos of an open internet.
That wave of response influenced the Democratic-majority commission. “Net neutrality could be a volatile and explosive issue,” said Gene Kimmelman, president of Public Knowledge, a nonprofit consumer group. “I’m not sure the Trump administration appreciates that it addresses nondiscrimination for all kinds of speech, as much for Breitbart and Newsmax as it is for MSNBC and CNN,” referring to news sources that are staunch backers of the Trump administration and ones often seen by Republicans as harsh critics.
Opponents of the net neutrality rules say the rules were mainly the result of a very effective lobbying campaign by powerful internet companies like Google, Facebook, Amazon and Netflix. They have deep pockets and could pay more for fast lanes for their services, they say, but used the net neutrality campaign to avoid that expense.
“Regulations result in the allocation of wealth by the government,” said Jeffrey Eisenach, an economist and visiting scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, who was also an adviser to the Trump transition team. “They are often an opportunity for one group of firms to grab an advantage over another group.”
President Trump on Monday designated Ajit Pai, a Republican member of the Federal Communications Commission and an outspoken opponent of new net neutrality rules, to be the agency’s new chairman.
Pai, 44, would take over for Tom Wheeler, a Democrat who stepped down on Friday. Wheeler’s term had not expired but Trump gets to designate a new chairman as Republicans gain the FCC majority.
“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.
A telecommunications lawyer who has served on the FCC since May 2012, Pai is a free-market advocate who has been sharply critical of new regulations adopted by Democrats in recent years.
He takes the chairman’s office amid reports that Trump’s advisors want to scale back the FCC’s authority.
“We need to fire up the weed whacker and remove those rules that are holding back investment, innovation and job creation,” Pai said in a speech last month looking ahead to Republican control of the FCC.
Pai, whose parents immigrated to the U.S. from India, was associate general counsel of Verizon Communications Inc. from 2001-03 before working as a staffer at the U.S. Senate, the Justice Department and the FCC.
He sprinkles his speeches with pop-culture references and is adept at social media. During the net neutrality debate, he tweeted a photo of himself with the 332-page proposal and lamented that FCC rules didn’t allow him to make it public. Pai has pushed for FCC proposals to be released before commissioners vote on them.
Andrew Jay Schwartzman, a Georgetown University law professor and longtime consumer advocate, said Pai would be a “formidable opponent” for public interest groups.
“He is not only an outspoken detractor from many of the important advances we obtained under Chairman Wheeler, but he is also extremely smart and knowledgeable,” Schwartzman said.
Chief among Pai’s targets will be the net neutrality online traffic rules the FCC adopted on a partisan 3-2 vote in 2015.
The regulations are designed to ensure the free flow of online data by barring Internet service providers from discriminating against legal content flowing through their networks. To do that, the FCC imposed utility-like oversight of broadband providers.
Former President Obama, his fellow Democrats and consumer activists pushed for the tough regulations. But the move was strongly opposed by Pai and the FCC’s other Republican, Michael O’Rielly, as well as GOP lawmakers and broadband providers.
Trump also spoke out against the rules, tweeting in November 2014, “Obama’s attack on the Internet is another top-down power grab.”
A federal appeals court upheld the rules last year after a legal challenge from AT&T Inc., other telecom companies and industry trade groups. But in a Dec. 7 speech to the Free State Foundation, a free-market think tank, Pai said he was “more confident than ever” that the “days are numbered” for the net neutrality regulations.
Craig Aaron, president of Free Press, a digital rights group, said Pai “looks out for the corporate interests he used to represent in the private sector.”
“Millions of Americans from across the political spectrum have looked to the FCC to protect their rights to connect and communicate and cheered decisions like the historic net neutrality ruling, and Pai threatens to undo all of that important work,” Aaron said. “Those millions will rise up again to oppose his reactionary agenda.”
Removing the net neutrality regulations could take a while as the FCC probably would have to go through a formal rule-making process.
“We made a decision on the record. The court supported that decision rather convincingly,” Wheeler said in an interview this week. “I think it’s going to be difficult to just waltz in and say, ‘We’re going to overturn everything.’”
Trump met with Pai at Trump Tower last week, fueling speculation that the new president would choose him to lead the agency.
The five-member commission has two vacancies after the departures of Wheeler and Democrat Jessica Rosenworcel.