FCC Chairman Chides Twitter, Criticizes Cher Over Net Neutrality Comments

Ajit Pai Free Speech

WASHINGTON — FCC Chairman Ajit Pai slammed Twitter as “part of the problem” when it comes to an open internet, arguing that the company has a double standard and has blocked conservative content.

His remarks, made at a speech before R Street Institute on Tuesday, were also biting toward Silicon Valley in general, as internet firms general oppose his proposal to repeal many of the agency’s existing net neutrality rules.

“Twitter isn’t an outlier,” Pai said. “Indeed, despite all the talk about the fear that broadband providers could decide what internet content consumers can see, recent experience shows that so-called edge providers are in fact deciding what content they see. These providers routinely block or discriminate against content they don’t like.”

Pai’s proposal, introduced last week, would repeal rules that bar internet providers from blocking or throttling content, or selling “fast lanes” to major companies who want to get speedier access to consumers. He wants the FCC to retain rules that require that ISPs disclose how they handle traffic, and to provide more specifics if they are placing limits on the accessibility of content.

His plan also calls for getting rid of the current regulatory framework for internet service, in which ISPs are designated as common carriers. The FCC will consider the proposal on Dec. 14, and it is expected to pass on a 3-2, party line vote.

In his speech, he argued that such regulation was heavy-handed and has hurt investment and innovation.

But public interest groups, internet activists and a number of other figures have sounded the alarm about the proposal, characterizing it as opening the door for corporations to serve as gatekeepers for internet content.

Pai criticized the way that Cher, Mark Ruffalo, Alyssa Milano, and other celebrities have characterized his proposal to repeal many of the agency’s existing net neutrality rules, calling some of the comments “absurd.”

Pai, who is prone to sprinkling his remarks with pop culture references, seemed to relish in pushing back against some of the comments Hollywood figures have made about his proposal, which would roll back a regulatory framework that was put in place in 2015.

Pai said that “some of the more eye-catching critiques have come from Hollywood celebrities, whose large online followings give them out-sized influence in shaping the public debate.”

He cited a tweet from Cher, who wrote that the internet “Will Include LESS AMERICANS NOT MORE” if his proposal is adopted. Pai said that “the opposite is true,” arguing that the removal of regulation would encourage companies to invest in rural and low-income areas and make broadband service more widely available.

Pai also cited a comment from Ruffalo, who had tweeted that “taking away #NetNeutrality is the Authoritarian dream. Consolidating information in the hands of a few controlled by a few. Dangerous territory.”

He said that Ruffalo’s warning, along with others like it, were “absurd.”

“Getting rid of government authority over the internet is the exact opposite of authoritarianism,” he said. “Government control is the defining feature of authoritarians, including the one in North Korea.”

Pai also pushed back on comments made by George Takei, Kumail Nanjiani, and Milano, who warned that the proposal posed a threat to democracy.

“If this were ‘Who’s the Boss?,’ this would be an opportunity for Tony Danza to dish out some wisdom about the consequences of making things up,” he said. Milano was a cast member on the 1980s sitcom.

He said that “when you get past the wild accusations, fear mongering, and hysteria, here’s the boring bottom line:  the plan to restore internet freedom would return us to the light touch, market-based approach under which the internet thrived.”

Twitter also publicly opposes Pai’s plan, along with other companies like Google, Amazon and Netflix. Pai characterized Twitter’s opposition as hypocritical, and cited instances when the company has refused content on its platform.

“The company has a viewpoint and uses that viewpoint to discriminate,” Pai said. He cited the case of Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), whose Senate campaign video was blocked from Twitter’s promotion platform because of one of her lines in which said said, “I fought Planned Parenthood and we stopped the sale of baby body parts.” Her account was not suspended and the video was not blocked from personal accounts. According to Politico, Twitter representatives deemed the ad “inflammatory.”

Pai, however, said that Twitter “appears to have a double standard when it comes to suspending or de-verifying conservative users’ accounts as opposed to those of liberal users. This conduct is many things, but it isn’t fighting for an open internet.”

A Twitter spokesperson said, in response to Pai’s comments, that “at no time was Representative Blackburn’s video censored by Twitter. Anyone voluntarily following her account could see it, as is their choice as a consumer when they choose to follow her. Because advertisements are served to users who do not necessarily follow an account, we therefore have higher standards for their content.”

At the time, Twitter said that their ad policies “strive to balance protecting our users from potentially distressing content with allowing our advertisers to communicate their messages. Nowhere is this more difficult than in the realm of political advertising and the highly charged issues that are often addressed therein.”

After a further review, Twitter decided to allow the content to be promoted on its ads platform.

“While we initially determined that a small portion of the video used potentially inflammatory language, after reconsidering the ad in the context of the entire message, we believe that there is room to refine our policies around these issues,” a Twitter spokesperson said.

The company sent a tweet last week, saying that it opposed “the FCC’s proposed weakening of Net Neutrality protections” and that it will “continue to fight for an open Internet, which is indispensable to free expression, consumer choice and innovation.”

Chip Pickering, the CEO of trade group INCOMPAS, said that “Pai’s attack on Twitter is like a boxer losing a fight and taking wild and erratic swings.

“Preventing hate speech and bullying behavior online is not the same thing as allowing cable companies to block, throttle and extort money from consumers and the websites they love,” Pickering said. “Twitter is an amazing platform for left, right and center. Donald Trump might not be President without it, and Chairman Pai’s plan to kill net neutrality will put Comcast and AT&T in charge of his Twitter account.”

He added, “The ISP’s are monopolies, over two-thirds of Americans are stuck paying more for terrible service and being denied choice and competition. Chairman Pai’s plan to kill net neutrality makes matters worse. It will block consumers’ access to over the top streaming competition that enables them to cut the cord for a better deal.”