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After months of anticipation, the Obama-era rules designed to keep the internet open are headed for the scrap heap.

Speaking in Washington DC on Wednesday, Federal Communications Commission chairman Ajit Pai announced a proposal that would replace the so-called net neutrality rules adopted in 2015. Instead, he promised a return to “light touch regulation” that would encourage more investment in high-speed communications networks and stimulate job creation.

The announcement from Mr Pai, a Republican appointee to the FCC and its chairman since early this year, is likely to mark the start of a bitter political battle. The 2015 regulations, which had explicit backing from the White House, followed a grassroots campaign that turned telecom regulation into a populist issue.

The FCC used a set of rules, known as Title II, that were originally designed for monopoly telecoms companies. Critics said they would be too heavy-handed for regulating the internet.

On Wednesday, Mr Pai said he would put a proposal to the commission on May 18th that would scrap the Title II rules and instead put internet regulation under a looser set of regulations designed for information providers. He also said he would propose jettisoning the “general conduct rule”, a provision from 2015 that gives the FCC broad power to challenge any practices that it thinks might threaten the openness of the internet.

Mr Pai criticised the Obama White House for deliberately provoking a public outcry over threats to the internet in 2015 for political reasons, prodding the FCC into taking an interventionist position: “They decided to put the federal government at the centre of the internet. Nothing about the internet was broken in 2015,” he said.

Supporters of the regulations say they have prevented network owners from blocking or hampering certain types of internet traffic and deny that they have discouraged investment in new networks. But Mr Pai said that investment by the 12 largest US internet services providers had fallen 5.6 per cent between 2014-2016. Taking into account a multiplier effect that included workers indirectly affected by the lost spending, that has cost 75,000-100,000 jobs, he said.

The FCC’s proposal will be published in full on Thursday and subject to consultations before being adopted, Mr Pai promised.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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