Changes promoted by the Federal Communications Commission chairman have rippled across industries and made him a pivotal official in the Trump administration’s rush to shed regulations.
WASHINGTON — Small tech companies, consumer groups and many celebrities were up in arms for weeks about a proposal at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to dismantle landmark rules that guarantee an open internet.
But Ajit Pai, the chairman of the agency, was having none of it.
In one speech, he called the complaints “hysteria” and “hot air.” In another, he dismissed criticism that by pushing the change, he was doing the bidding for companies like Verizon, his former employer. He joked that his nightmare scenario would be refereeing a dispute between Verizon and Sinclair Broadcasting, another company he has been accused of helping with his policies.
Education: Harvard College, University of Chicago Law School
Career: Appointed as FCC commissioner in 2011. Previously chief counsel of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on the Constitution, and associate general counsel at Verizon Communications
Sources: The New York Times, Bloomberg
“How do you choose,” he said, “between a longtime love and a newfound crush?”
The agency voted 3-2 Thursday to dismantle the so-called net-neutrality rules, which prohibit internet service providers from blocking or charging websites for higher quality delivery to consumers. The change also dials back the stance established during the Obama administration that broadband should be regulated like a public utility.
Passing the plan is the biggest victory in Pai’s eventful, 11-month tenure as the head of the FCC. Under his leadership, the agency has already opened the door for more media mergers, curtailed a high-speed internet program for low-income families and allowed broadband providers to raise rates to business customers.
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All this activity has made Pai, 44, a former lawyer for Verizon and a longtime government bureaucrat, the target of many angry protests. In recent days, government officials — including 18 state attorneys generals and dozens of Democratic members of Congress — asked the FCC to delay the vote. On Wednesday, the attorneys general said that many of the 23 million public comments that had been filed to the agency about net neutrality appeared to be fraudulent. Pai ignored the delay requests.
Pai’s changes have also made him a pivotal official in the Trump administration’s rush to shed regulations. The effects of his decisions have rippled across the industries Pai oversees. The looser rules on media ownership, for example, have enabled Sinclair Broadcasting’s $3.9 billion bid for Tribune.
“Ajit Pai has the potential to be one of the most consequential commissioners in the agency’s history,” said Gus Hurwitz, an assistant professor at the University of Nebraska College of Law, who is an expert in telecom policy and who supports Pai’s proposal.
Even Pai’s detractors acknowledge that he has been efficient at moving his agenda. Mark Cooper, a staff member of Consumer Federation of America, said Pai has far outpaced his recent predecessors, even if Cooper does not agree with those efforts.
“In every way,” Cooper said, “his decisions are bad for consumers and good for big corporations.”
Pai declined to be interviewed for this article. But in a statement, the FCC said that he “has been focused on making the agency more transparent, closing the digital divide, and updating the Commission’s rules to reflect the modern communications marketplace.”
The agency added that “the FCC has modernized its rules across a wide range of areas to encourage more competition and innovation.”
Pai’s deregulatory fervor began well before the presidential election and his nomination by President Donald Trump.
A child of immigrants from India who settled in Kansas, Pai was lauded by Republicans and Democrats when he was appointed in 2011 by President Barack Obama to the FCC. Lawmakers and public-interest groups hoped the young nominee would bring a greater appreciation for how communications was shifting online than past commissioners.
But for five years as a minority member of the FCC, Pai consistently voted against regulations such as those limiting business broadband prices and providing a broadband subsidy for low-income Americans. He complained that the agency’s Democratic leaders, including Tom Wheeler, were too heavy-handed with companies.
The biggest offense, in his opinion, were the 2015 net-neutrality rules, which included the declaration that broadband would be subject to more utility-style rules. He said the regulations would burden the fast-growing high-speed internet market.
In dissenting comments during the debate over the rules, he echoed the arguments of telecom companies that the FCC’s net-neutrality rules made it hard for telecoms to expand their networks, leading to less innovation in business plans and eventual harm to the economy.
He also accused the White House of presidential interference in the activities of the FCC, an independent agency. Pai said that the agency had taken its direction only after Obama posted a video in favor of the net-neutrality rules.
“We are flip-flopping for one reason and one reason alone,” he said at the time. “President Obama told us to do so.”
Pai’s consistent opposition attracted supporters from free-market think tanks and conservative commentators like Rush Limbaugh and Roger Stone, a former Trump adviser who recently praised the proposal to scrap net-neutrality rules. Pai became a frequent guest on Fox News and other conservative media, and was praised in the editorial pages of The Wall Street Journal.
Supporters of net neutrality argue that telecom companies want to become the gatekeepers of the internet, deciding whether sites have access to fast or slow connections.
But Pai has responded by saying the bigger threat is from the big tech companies. Google, Twitter and Facebook, he argues, can deprive consumers of free expression.
He says Twitter, for example, sometimes wrongly suspends users just because they do not share the same views as the company.
“Let’s not kid ourselves,” Pai said last month at an event sponsored by the R Street Institute, a free-market think tank. “When it comes to an open internet, Twitter is part of the problem.”