President Trump’s pick for chairman of the Federal Communications Commission is a sworn enemy of the free internet.
Ajit Pai, whom Trump designated as FCC chairman on Monday, is vocal opponent of net neutrality, a policy that requires internet service providers to treat all data equally. The policy, championed by outgoing FCC head Tom Wheeler, is a key cause for internet activists and consumer watchdogs but has enemies among telecommunications companies. And Pai, a former attorney for Verizon who campaigned against caps on rate hikes for prison phones, has already promised to take a “weed whacker” to net neutrality under Trump.
Pai, a senior official in Wheeler’s Democrat-dominated FCC, outlined his vision for the new FCC in a December speech. The Republican-run department “need[s] to remove outdated and unnecessary regulations,” he said in a speech to the conservative Free State Foundation. “We need to fire up the weed whacker and remove those rules that are holding back investment, innovation, and job creation.”
Bold claims about “innovation” and “job creation” are common cries from net neutrality opponents. But telecommunications companies are almost always the beneficiaries of the anti-neutrality innuendo.
Net neutrality requires internet services providers to charge equal rates and offer equal speeds for all data usage. Without the policy, a telecommunications company—like Pai’s former employer Verizon—would be allowed to impose blocks on websites at its discretion or allow providers to create so-called fast lanes for preferred sites while other internet destinations lag on slower connections. The tactics are more than a hypothetical: In 2007, feds caught Comcast deliberately slowing internet users’ access to torrenting sites.
In a February 2015 decision, the FCC voted on measures that would enforce net neutrality for internet service providers. Pai was one of the dissenters in the 3-2 vote. He said his colleagues had only voted for net neutrality “because President Obama told us to.”
His vote, and his long-running stance against net neutrality, earned him the ire of internet freedom groups, like the Free Press, whose president and CEO issued a statement Monday condemning Pai’s appointment.
“Ajit Pai has been on the wrong side of just about every major issue that has come before the FCC during his tenure,” Free Press president and CEO Craig Aaron said. “He’s never met a mega-merger he didn’t like or a public safeguard he didn’t try to undermine. He’s been an inveterate opponent of Net Neutrality, expanded broadband access for low-income families, broadband privacy, prison-phone justice, media diversity and more.”
Pai’s opposition to a cap on rate hikes for prison phones, which the FCC reported could cost up to $14 a minute for inmates, was another hallmark of his time at the FCC. While the FCC moved to block future rate increases, Pai dissented, implying that if the inmates were to pay lower rates for prison phones, the law would lose some of its authority.
"Political expedience trumps everything else,” he said in March 2016, criticizing the department’s decision to cap prison phone rates. “The rule of law is ridiculed rather than respected.”
Pai’s opposition reportedly led to friction with Democratic FCC staffers.
“He’s more interested in grandstanding than getting something done,” an anonymous Democratic staffer told Politico in 2015. “He’s always saying we won’t negotiate with him—that we won’t compromise, but when his idea of compromise is to gut the order, [then] why even negotiate?”
Another opponent offered a slightly more charitable description. “He’s very much like Justice Scalia in terms of being a standard-bearer for a particular philosophical and ideological view that has a consistent, albeit very narrow, view,” Harold Feld, senior vice president at Public Knowledge, told Politico.
But Pai’s views have been eagerly received in the Trump administration. In November, Trump tapped two former telecommunications lobbyists to oversee the FCC’s transition. The transition officials, Jeffrey Eisenach and Mark Jamison, are vocal opponents of net neutrality, both serving on staff at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.
Trump’s own views on net neutrality appear negative, although his only explicit statement on the issue came in an old tweet that suggests he did not know what net neutrality was.
“Obama’s attack on the internet is another top down power grab,” Trump tweeted in 2014. “Net neutrality is the Fairness Doctrine. Will target conservative media.”
The FCC’s Fairness Doctrine, defunct since 1987, required television broadcasters to air contrasting perspectives on controversial subjects, even if the opinions did not receive perfectly equal air time. The law is unrelated to net neutrality, which prevents a service provider from “targeting” a specific kind of media.
But under Pai, the internet-equalizing policy could be out the door.
Speaking to the conservative Free State Foundation in December, Pai recalled the day the FCC passed its broadest net neutrality protections. “‘I do believe that its days are numbered,’” Pai recalled thinking. “Today, I am more confident than ever that this prediction will come true.”
If so, it will be the end of the web as we know it.
“Millions of Americans from across the political spectrum have looked to the FCC to protect their rights to connect and communicate and cheered decisions like the historic Net Neutrality ruling,” Aaron said. “Pai threatens to undo all of that important work. Those millions will rise up again to oppose his reactionary agenda.”