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FCC's Clyburn: Voluntary net neutrality rules won't cut it

Photo: Robin Groulx / Axios; Illustration: Rebecca Zisser / Axios

The lone Democrat on the Federal Communications Commission is skeptical of the idea floated by FCC Chairman Ajit Pai to replace the agency's sweeping 2015 net neutrality rules with voluntary commitments from internet service providers not to block, throttle or prioritize web traffic. In an interview Monday, Mignon Clyburn told Axios she's worried in theory that a voluntary regime would give major ISPs like AT&T, Verizon, Charter and Comcast too much power.

"You've heard me say this dozens of times, about the internet and broadband being one of the greatest equalizers of our time, and what it enables. And something that important, for a handful of entities saying this is how it's going to be done, I'm a little bit uncomfortable [with] that. I haven't seen anything, but just the promise of that makes me feel a little uncomfortable."

Why it matters: Pai plans to unveil his net neutrality strategy this week, multiple sources tell Axios.

It's not yet clear how the voluntary commitments will factor into that strategy, if at all. While Pai doesn't need Clyburn's vote to move forward with his proposal, she'll play a central role in the opposition. She'll be backed by liberal grassroots activists, Congressional Democrats and tech firms who'll be vocal on the issue.

As the lone Democrat, she could technically sit out of a commission meeting, denying Pai the quorum needed to vote on the proposal. But she doesn't plan to.

"As much as I like good mysteries and good stories and good headlines, I'm just going to say to you that I know I have a job to do, I intend to do that job, I am very proud of the voices and the people that I represent. I intend to continue to represent them. And the rest of the speculation, which again, is not being fueled by me, it's being fueled by others, I'll let them have fun with that."

First 100 days: When asked what the headline would be for a story about Pai's early days as Chairman, Clyburn immediately used the phrase "dramatic shift." Pai has moved quickly to roll back several actions taken by his Democratic predecessor, Tom Wheeler.

Clyburn suggested Pai's policy choices reflected his work with Congressional Republicans and a short tenure working in the private sector. She contrasted this with her own background:

"He's worked on the hill, he worked for law firms who have represented companies, and I really think that those points of view give him, again, a different foundation in terms of how he sees the world. When we talk about particular topics or issues, our differences often come, I think, again, from our experiences. My parents met in jail fighting for equity and parity in this country. His experiences are different from that."

In response, a spokesman for Pai said, "Chairman Pai's parents came to this country from India with little more than a radio and ten dollars in their pocket. And while neither of them is a prominent public figure, he is enormously proud of their immigrant story." A spokesman for Clyburn later said there was no intent to compare parental backgrounds but explain how her own parents' experiences have informed her work on issues such as Lifeline and inmate calling reform.