Top Pai Aide: FCC Will Protect Free, Open Internet

Chief of staff says chairman has not received 'Last Week Tonight' invitation

Matthew Berry, chief of staff to FCC chair Ajit Pai, assured a National Public Radio audience Wednesday (May 31) that the chairman's proposal to roll back Title II was meant to continue to protect an open Internet while encouraging innovation and investment that will promote high-speed broadband access, particularly to rural America.

Berry was grilled by host Joshua Johnson on the NPR show 1A, a production of WAMU FM Washington, in a segment about the proposal and the pushback it has drawn from Title II fans and its impact on rural broadband deployment. Other guests on the show included former FCC chair Tom Wheeler, US Telecom CEO Jonathan Spalter and Free Press CEO Craig Aaron.

Host Johnson conceded he was skeptical that Title II is what's preventing more rural investments, rather than the lack of a strong business case, Title II or no Title II. Berry said he was not saying that the utility-style regs were the only reason, but was one of them, adding that Title II had depressed investment by billions of dollars, and rural rollouts, which are the most "marginal" investments, have suffered.

Related: Pai Prioritizes Closing the Digital Divide

Johnson said he was also skeptical that big media companies would just do the right thing when it comes to potentially speeding up or slowing down some content if the rules are rolled back, and asked Berry if Pai actually trusted Verizon, AT&T or Comcast to "honor their net neutrality pledges."

Related: AT&T: Blocking, Slowing Appear Allowable Under Title II

Berry said it was not a matter of trust, but of a proven legal framework -- under Title I -- that did protect a free and open Internet where people could access the content of their choice.

He said the pre-Title II regime had given consumers the freedom they wanted and businesses the incentive to provide high-speed access.

Johnson asked why the public should trust that Comcast won't throttle CBS or NBC, through Xfinity, to advantage NBC.

Berry said it is about having a framework that prevents that kind of behavior, which he said was the case under Title I, where there was not such systemic behavior, and that there were antitrust laws on the books that make anticompetitive conduct illegal.

"I don't think we have any argument about what the end goal is, but what is the right legal framework for securing those values plus other important values like network investment and innovation," Berry said.

Wheeler, who was part of a panel discussion during the segment, branded Berry's answers doublespeak. Berry did not join the discussion, but was instead interviewed by phone.

"I found it interesting that Matthew Berry didn't want to engage in discussions here," Wheeler said. "What we heard was, 'We're in favor of a free and open internet, but we're going to remove all the protections for that."

Wheeler said the reality is that all the talk is about the public interest and rural access, rather than how the FCC is going to free monopolies "to be able to control what you see and where you can go."

He said that is the issue, given that two-thirds of consumers don't have a choice in ISPs.

Johnson also asked Berry whether Pai would agree to go on John Oliver's Last Week Tonight on HBO, given the impact of Oliver's net-neutrality segments on the issue's visibility (and the comments that have been flooding the FCC). Berry said he could not speak for the chairman, but added that Pai had not been asked to appear on Oliver's show, and so he could not speak about a "nonexistent invitation."

Berry also pointed out that Pai has been talking about the issue publicly, including on Morning Edition and PBS NewsHour.

"He has been very engaged, talking to a wide range of media about these issues, and I think he will continue to do that," Berry said.