Trump’s new FCC chief is Ajit Pai, and he wants to destroy net neutrality

Donald Trump has elevated Ajit Pai to chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, giving control over the agency to a reliable conservative who’s been opposed to pretty much every big action the commission has taken in recent years, from establishing net neutrality to protecting consumer privacy to restricting major cable mergers.

Pai has been a commissioner at the FCC since 2012, when he was appointed by then-President Obama and confirmed by the Senate. Though an Obama appointee, Pai does not share Obama’s progressive views and is by no means someone Obama would have chosen to lead the commission. Rather, there’s a tradition of letting the minority party pick two commissioners, since the majority can only legally hold three seats; in nominating Pai — at the recommendation of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican — Obama was sticking to that tradition.

Shortly after Trump’s election, Pai indicated that a top priority under the new administration would be dismantling net neutrality. In a letter, he wrote that he intended to “revisit ... the Title II Net Neutrality proceeding ... as soon as possible.”

Pai has long been critical of net neutrality, saying that the problem it’s trying to solve — big internet providers acting as gatekeepers to what we see and do online — doesn’t exist. He recently reiterated a prediction that the commission’s Open Internet Order, which established net neutrality, would be reversed or overturned in one way or another. He’ll now have the chance to play a role in that.

“On the day that the Title II Order was adopted, I said that ‘I don’t know whether this plan will be vacated by a court, reversed by Congress, or overturned by a future commission. But I do believe that its days are numbered,’” Pai said. “Today, I am more confident than ever that this prediction will come true.”

Open internet advocates are already concerned about where Pai will take the agency. “Pai has been an effective obstructionist who looks out for the corporate interests he used to represent in the private sector,” says Craig Aaron, the president of a nonprofit called Free Press that’s fought for net neutrality, in an emailed statement. “If the new president really wanted an FCC chairman who’d stand up against the runaway media consolidation that Trump himself decried in the AT&T–Time Warner deal, Pai would have been his last choice — though corporate lobbyists across the capital are probably thrilled.”

"Some of the things we've seen in his record are certainly problematic for consumers and for competition," Chris Lewis, vice president of the communications advocacy nonprofit Public Knowledge, tells The Verge. "Whether it's his opposition to open internet rules, or opposition to basic privacy online, or opposition to the effort to extend the Lifeline program subsidies to broadband so that low income Americans have access to basic 21st century communications."

Pai’s core stance is a traditionally Republican one: free market, minimal regulation. He’s been opposed to requiring ISPs to implement stricter privacy protections for consumers, opposed to increasing broadband benchmarks to promote higher speeds, opposed to regulating mergers, and even indicated a Republican-controlled commission might have let the Comcast–Time Warner Cable merger go through.

That said, he has not been opposed to absolutely everything done under Obama’s FCC. He recently voted in favor of a bipartisan proposal that will enable the the support of real-time texting for people with disabilities, allowing text to be transmitted letter by letter, rather than requiring a user to hit “send.” He has also voiced support for rules that would reduce the outrageous rates inmates must pay to place calls in many states, though he voted against a proposal that would do this, citing legal concerns (the rules are currently caught up in court).

One of the FCC’s mandates is to promote broadband deployment, and Pai has emphasized his dissatisfaction with current policies. He said last year that he believes the commission’s actions “over the last seven years just haven’t worked,” and he’s made suggestions — including adding tax credits and removing regulations that protect older technologies, like copper wire, that some communities rely on — that he thinks will speed up the process of closing “the digital divide between rural and urban America.”

Pai has also been critical of the FCC’s willingness to pass partisan proposals under the leadership of Tom Wheeler, who was chairman during Obama’s final three years in office. Commissioners from the opposing party were given more deference under previous leaders, he says, and prior leaders were willing to negotiate bipartisan solutions.

“The commission is much stronger when it speaks with a unified voice,” Pai told Morning Consult nearly a year ago. “It gets a lot more congressional support, it’s more likely to be held up in the courts and ultimately accepted by the American people.”

Prior to working at the FCC, Pai worked as a lawyer throughout government, at the FCC, the Department of Justice, and the Senate Judiciary Committee. He also served as counsel for Verizon between 2001 and 2003, focusing on antitrust and regulatory matters.

Pai’s tenure at the commission is set to expire this year, so he’ll need to be reconfirmed by the Senate if Republicans want him to stick around past 2017. That means Trump effectively gets to test out Pai for a bit before deciding whether to keep him around for much longer. If reconfirmed, he’d get an additional five-year stay that could keep him on through Trump’s term.

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

Trump names new FCC chairman

President Trump has found his man to regulate the media.
Trump has picked Ajit Pai to serve as the next chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. Pai is currently the senior Republican commissioner at the FCC and does not require Senate approval. However, he will need to be reconfirmed by the Senate before the end of this year because his current five-year term as a commissioner expires.

"This afternoon, I was informed that @POTUS @realDonaldTrump designated me the 34th Chairman of the @FCC," Pai said on Twitter Monday. "It is a deeply humbling honor."

The FCC's five-member board currently has one Democrat and two Republicans, including Pai, with two vacancies left for Trump to fill. Trump will only be able to name one more Republican, though, as no more than three members can be from the same political party.

The FCC could prove crucial to Trump, who is known for his obsession with the media. The agency has the authority to block major media mergers, revoke broadcast licenses and regulate Internet providers.

Pai is known for being an outspoken critic of the net neutrality rules. These are intended to keep the Internet open and fair by preventing providers like Comcast (CCV) from speeding up or slowing down traffic from specific websites and apps.

When the rules were first approved in early 2015, Pai attacked it by quoting Emperor Palpatine from Star Wars. After Trump's victory, Pai said he believed net neutrality's "days are numbered."

Pai, a former counsel for Verizon (VZ, Tech30), may also be more favorable toward media mergers than the previous FCC chair. While talking about the potential for a Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger in late 2013, Pai noted: "A Republican administration likely would be more inclined to approve a deal."

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Comcast abandoned the mega merger in 2015 after reported skepticism from the FCC and Department of Justice.

If so, that could put Pai at odds with Trump.

During the campaign, Trump said little about the FCC itself. However, he threatened to block AT&T (T, Tech30)'s deal to buy Time Warner (TWX), the parent company of CNN, and to break up the merger of Comcast (CCV) and NBCUniversal.

But Pai is in good company. Several of the advisers Trump appointed to help with the FCC transition are also against the net neutrality rules and generally in favor of media mergers, raising questions about how much Trump would push back on the latter.

Media companies may also breathe a sigh of relief to learn that Pai describes himself as a staunch advocate of the First Amendment in his official FCC bio.

Tom Wheeler, the previous FCC chairman who was appointed by former President Obama, decided to step down at the end of Obama's term.

Wheeler, a former cable industry lobbyist, quickly established himself as the cable industry's worst enemy. Under Wheeler's leadership, the FCC approved net neutrality regulations, pushed for set-top box reform and helped block the massive merger between Comcast and Time Warner Cable.

"We are at a fork in the road," Wheeler said in his final public speech earlier this month. "One path leads forward. The other leads back to re-litigating solutions that are demonstrably working."

Why Is The Media Smearing New FCC Chair Ajit Pai As The Enemy Of Net Neutrality?

The net neutrality misinformation bandwagon has opened an ugly new front.

As fellow Forbes contributor Harold Furchtgott-Roth reported, President Trump has named Ajit Pai, one of the current members of the FCC, as its new Chairman.

Unlike many of the outsider and largely unknown candidates the President has nominated for positions in his government, Pai is very much a lifer when it comes to technology and communications issues.  He has been on the Commission for five years, following stints in the agency’s Office of Legal Counsel, as legal clerk to a federal judge, senior counsel to two U.S. Senators and as senior attorney in the Justice Department.

“He has had an extraordinary legal career for an individual of any age,” as Furtchtgott-Roth notes, “much less a person still in his mid-40s.”

For technology companies here in Silicon Valley and across the Internet ecosystem, Pai’s appointment is very good news.  He favors a return to the bi-partisan policy of light-touch regulation established in the early days of the commercial Internet—policies that have made possible the convergence of networks, media and technologies on the single open Internet standard.   His FCC is likely to be consistent, professional, and predictable.

But to judge from the vast majority of media postings about Pai’s promotion to FCC Chairman, it’s—once again--the end of the world as we know it.

Consider just a small sampling of headlines from yesterday and today:  “Trump’s New FCC Chief Is Ajit Pai, And He Wants To Destroy Net Neutrality” (The Verge); “New FCC Chief Ajit Pai Who Promises To Kill Net Neutrality Is Confirmed” (The Inquirer); “Trump Names New FCC Chairman:  Ajit Pai, Who Wants To Take A ‘Weed Wacker’ To Net Neutrality” (The L.A. Times); “Ajit Pai, Trump’s FCC Pick, Hates Net Neutrality” (The Daily Beast).

Media outlets across the political spectrum reporting on Pai’s promotion have focused on a single issue—the FCC’s controversial 2015 open Internet rulemaking, which transformed Internet access providers into public utilities.  In doing so, they have trivialized the very real and important issues facing the agency and its new Chairman.

Much worse than that, they have badly conflated and misreported Pai’s views on net neutrality itself—an almost entirely separate topic.

The how and why of this serious reporting failure is the real story here.

But first, a reality check.  Pai has consistently supported the basic principles of net neutrality—the common sense view that ISPs should not be allowed to block specific legal websites or devices, intentionally slow some traffic to benefit others, misrepresent their network management practices or otherwise behave in conduct long-considered anti-competitive in American law.

Here’s an extended excerpt from Pai’s statement issued at the time the FCC began considering its most recent effort to craft prophylactic rules to enforce net neutrality in 2014, noting the “vigorous” public debate over how best to do so consistent with the law:

But we should not let that debate obscure some important common ground: namely, a bipartisan consensus in favor of a free and open Internet. Indeed, this consensus reaches back at least a decade. In 2004, then-FCC Chairman Michael Powell outlined four principles of Internet freedom: The freedom to access lawful content, the freedom to use applications, the freedom to attach personal devices to the network, and the freedom to obtain service plan information.

One year later, the FCC unanimously endorsed these principles when it adopted the Internet Policy
Respect for these four Internet freedoms has aided the Internet’s tremendous growth over the last decade. It has shielded online competitors from anticompetitive practices. It has fostered long-term investments in broadband infrastructure. It has made the Internet an unprecedented platform for civic engagement, commerce, entertainment, and more. And it has made the United States the epicenter of online innovation. I support the four Internet freedoms, and I am committed to protecting them going forward.
(Emphasis added)

What is true is that Pai objected strongly to the bizarre process that waylaid the agency over the next several months, including an unprecedented intervention by the White House and the legally fraught decision in early 2015 to enact the new rules while, at the same time, transforming broadband Internet access services into public utilities.

But Pai’s 67-page dissent from that decision—which, in nearly 400 pages, itself said almost nothing about net neutrality or consensus on the rules themselves—was devoted entirely and sensibly to problems with the FCC’s process, and authority.  It focused on the certain negative unintended consequences of former Chairman Tom Wheeler’s decision to abandon what Wheeler himself described as a simple “blueprint” provided by the courts for getting the rules enacted in favor of public utility “reclassification.”

(At yesterday’s annual State of the Net conference in D.C., for example, one of those consequences was bemoaned repeatedly by policy experts on all sides of the debate.  In reclassifying broadband access as a public utility, the legal authority of the Federal Trade Commission to police anti-competitive practices was immediately cut off.

That removed what had been an active and often aggressive “cop on the beat” for consumer protection, and likely the reason actual net neutrality concerns always remained theoretical during nearly two decades when the FCC had no rules of its own in place.)

So why is the press getting the story so very wrong?

The post from The Verge (“Wants to Destroy Net Neutrality”) provides an instructive example.  “Shortly after Trump’s election,” it reports, “Pai indicated that a top priority under the new administration would be dismantling net neutrality.”

The sole source for this statement is a letter Pai wrote in response to questions about a small business exemption for ISPs with less than 250,000 customers from some of the more onerous government reporting requirements included in the 2015 order.  Pai notes the failure of the Commission to reach agreement on a deal to extend the exemption, which has lapsed.

“[W]e would not support any adverse action against small business providers,” the letter concludes, “and we will seek to revisit those requirements, and the Title II Net Neutrality proceeding more broadly, as soon as possible.”

That is the only reference to net neutrality in the letter, which says nothing about “dismantling” or “destroying” anything, let alone a “top priority.”  If there is anything implied by the pledge to “revisit” the 2015 proceeding “more broadly,” it is clearly the public utility reclassification that is being referenced (known in the law as “Title II”), not the net neutrality principles themselves, in whatever form.

In two further paragraphs reiterating Pai’s being “long critical of net neutrality,” the Verge story makes no reference or even acknowledgment of Pai’s detailed and specific comments on the difference between the rules (“bipartisan consensus”) and reclassification throughout the proceedings.

Instead, the author quotes from statements by two advocacy groups (more on that in a moment) who continue to lobby hard for the public utility reclassification.  They describe Pai without supporting facts as  an "effective obstructionist" and someone opposed to "basic privacy online."  The author does not verify those claims or quote opposing views.

The Verge’s story, which unlike many at least cited to some evidence of Pai’s views rather than to nothing at all or to other stories that also failed to provide any actual sources, is far from the worst example.

Indeed, even Vox’s Timothy B. Lee, who understands the engineering behind the Internet better than nearly any tech reporter I know, missed the mark in his post (“a net neutrality foe”).

Lee describes Pai as being “known for his deregulatory views generally and his opposition to network neutrality in particular.”  But his only source for the latter conclusion is a speech Pai gave in December, just after the election, in which he complained of “regulatory underbrush” from the FCC's proceedings over the last half century, and a pledge to “fire up the weed whacker and remove those rules that are holding back investment, innovation, and job creation.”

While Pai’s speech did reiterate his objections to reclassification (but without reference to “net neutrality in particular”), the discussion of “regulatory underbrush” came later.  It specifically refers to other, older regulations having nothing to do with the 2015 order.  The full context makes that clear:
In the months to come, we also need to remove outdated and unnecessary regulations. As anyone who has attempted to take a quick spin through Part 47 of the Code of Federal Regulations could tell you, the regulatory underbrush at the FCC is thick. We need to fire up the weed whacker and remove those rules that are holding back investment, innovation, and job creation. Free State and others have already identified many that should go. And one way the FCC can do this is through the biennial review, which we kicked off in early November. Under section 11, Congress specifically directed the FCC to repeal unnecessary regulations. We should follow that command.
(Emphasis added)

And removing obsolete and outdated regulations is hardly partisan or controversial, nor does it reflect a blind desire to deregulate for its own sake.  Indeed, President Obama, following previous administrations, issued multiple executive orders requiring Cabinet-level departments and other federal agencies to do just that.

Lee’s article goes on to quote some of the same advocacy groups as The Verge article, then mischaracterizes Pai’s dissent from the 2015 order as a vote “against the network neutrality rules,” which he says Pay described as “a threat to internet freedom.”

But the threat Pai detailed was not the rules—which, again, are never mentioned—but rather the decision to ground the FCC’s authority to enforce them in public utility regulations issued in the 1930’s.

Indeed, the 2015 order devotes almost no discussion to the rules at all.  It is one part net neutrality, and 99 parts public utility—including a return to the Ma Bell days of regulated rates, services, and artificial barriers to entry.

Emotional but misleading appeals to Internet freedom are not just playing politics.  Leaving Internet governance largely to the engineering-driven multistakeholder process, as everyone acknowledges, has been critical in revolutionizing the information industries, empowering consumers in a golden age of new content, services, and devices, and left the U.S. the clear winner—a source of envy and imitation by every other world economy

And for what it’s worth, Pai’s alarm over reclassification has already been borne out.  Though the Commission promised repeatedly in the 2015 order to limit its new public utility powers solely to ensure net neutrality rules could be enforced, that forbearance was short lived.

In the final months of the Wheeler FCC, the Commission rushed through orders re-regulating rates for enterprise data services, subjecting ISPs (and only ISPs) to a highly-restrictive privacy regime that upends the model of ad-supported free content, and flirted with banning free and sponsored mobile data services that consumers actually want.

Still, advocates and commentators may disagree with Pai about the public utility decision.  But it is simply wrong to characterize his objections as a rejection of net neutrality or even to the specific rules the FCC finalized in 2015.

Nowhere has Pai indicated hostility to basic net neutrality principles themselves, or disavowed his repeated pledge “to protect them going forward.”  Nor has he ever proposed to “kill,” “destroy,” “gut,” “end” or “hate” those protections.

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