The chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, Ajit Pai, formally launched a process Thursday that could sweep away regulations and consumer protections on the internet, agency officials disclosed.
The bid by Pai, a former Verizon Communications Inc. lawyer who was named to the board by President Barack Obama and made chairman by President Trump, is likely to be highly divisive throughout the nation, leading to millions of public comments at the federal agency that has zigzagged on internet regulations over the last two decades.
Pai has said that doing away with the regulations enacted in 2015 under then-FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler will stimulate investment into broadband, leading to cheaper and faster internet for Americans. Pai has the votes to advance the plan at the commissioner-depleted FCC -- which is now made up of two Republicans and one Democrat, with two vacancies.
The FCC announced on Thursday that it would formally propose dismantling the existing internet regulations in its May meeting in Washington and then accept public comments on the proposal. The process will take months.
Internet companies such as Facebook and Google have sought an "open internet" that would prevent telecom companies from blocking their websites or slowing internet traffic.
But critics say Pai's proposal, if enacted, would be a gift to big telecom companies.
Pai's change to the rules would allow telecom companies "to erect barriers or charge tolls to any application, connected device, or website ... customers want to reach," FCC commissioner Mignon Clyburn and the Federal Trade Commission's Terrell McSweeny said in a joint statement. Both are Democrats.
As part of Pai's proposal, internet privacy oversight and other consumer protections would be shifted to the Federal Trade Commission from the FCC.
Telecom companies, among them Comcast Corp. and Verizon, cheer Pai's deregulatory zeal as they fear that harsher rules could lead to price controls over internet service providers. Comcast now has more broadband-internet subscribers than TV customers.
Comcast chief executive Brian Roberts said in a conference call on Thursday with Wall Street analysts that he was "heartened" by Pai's actions but also said the company would maintain an "open internet" for consumers.
A top official FCC official said in a Thursday afternoon conference call that it was "highly unlikely that no matter what we do will end up in court."