FCC Chairman Ajit Pai will step down on January 20

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Ajit Pai

Brad Quick | CNBC

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai will step down from his post on January 20, the day President-elect Joe Biden is inaugurated, he announced Monday.

The announcement means that the FCC could reach a Democratic majority sooner than it would otherwise be able to. Pai’s term was slated to expire in June 2021, though Biden will be able to choose a Democrat to chair the commission once in office. Commissioners must be confirmed by the Senate.

Pai’s decision to step down could have significant implications on net neutrality, an issue that helped define his term as chairman. In 2017, Pai voted with his fellow Republican commissioners to remove rules that prohibited internet providers from from blocking or slowing traffic to particular sites and offering higher speed “lanes” at higher prices. Many major internet providers have not yet taken advantage of that rule change, however.

Pai had recently said that the FCC could move forward with rulemaking around President Donald Trump’s executive order targeting social media companies. He said the commission’s general counsel determined it had legal authority to interpret Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, the law that shields tech platforms from being held liable for their users’ posts (and for removing those posts or reducing their reach). Pai’s departure makes it much less likely that significant action on the executive order will take place anytime soon, given that the two Democratic commissioners opposed Pai’s decision.

The five-person commission can have no more than three commissioners from one party at any given time under the law. The president can appoint a chair of the commission from outside the agency or select one of the existing commissioners, such as Democratic Commissioners Jessica Rosenworcel and Geoffrey Starks.

This story is developing. Check back for updates.

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