IN APRIL, AJIT Pai, the newly appointed chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), announced his first major initiative: taking internet regulation back to 2014.
Two years earlier, the FCC had reclassified how the web is treated under the Telecommunications Act. Before, it had been a Title I information service, which is lightly regulated. Now it was a Title II telecommunications service, essentially a utility, like the landline phone system.
President Barack Obama had pushed aggressively for the change--part of a policy known as "net neutrality"--raising questions about the agency's independence from the executive branch. The new rules were put in place under a cloud of secrecy, with the specifics hidden from public view until after they were voted into effect.
Previous iterations of the FCC's net neutrality rules had been struck down by the courts, which said the agency did not have sufficient authority to mandate that internet service providers (ISPs) treat all online content equally. Reclassifying the web under Title II gave the commission the regulatory muscle to make net neutrality a requirement.
In his April remarks, Pai declared that the switch had been a costly error, noting that capital expenditures on domestic broadband among the country's largest providers had decreased by about S3.6 billion since the reclassification--the first time that such investments had ever gone down. As part of the increase in regulatory oversight associated with reclassification, the FCC had adopted a vague but sweeping "general conduct" standard that gave it the power to crack down on perceived bad behavior by internet providers without providing clear guidance about what would trigger enforcement.
Pointing to a Clintonera decision to minimize internet regulations, Pai called the resulting decades of innovation "the greatest free market success story in history." His goal as chairman would be to return the web to the pre-net neutrality state in which it had thrived for so long.
In November, after a period of public comment, Pai called a vote on whether to rescind the Obama-era rules. "Under my proposal, the federal government will stop micromanaging the internet," he said. The commission's current makeup meant the change was virtually certain to pass.
Pai's proposal is the culmination of more than a decade of bureaucratic squabbles that began during George W. Bush's presidency. In 2005, the FCC adopted a set of "policy statements," or...