“During the Trump Administration, we will shift from playing defense at the FCC to going on offense,” Ajit Pai said in December last year, a month before president-elect Donald Trump appointed him as the new chair of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). He wasn’t kidding.
Pai is at the center of the U.S.’s net neutrality storm. He took his post promising to gut the rule—which forbids broadband providers from favoring certain web services over others—and he seems likely to get his wish. The FCC’s leadership is dominated by Republicans, and on Thursday they will vote on Pai’s proposal to rescind the Obama-era classification of broadband firms as “common carriers” with neutrality obligations.
But who is Ajit Pai?
A lawyer, Pai has shuttled between government and private-sector jobs for the past two decades. From 1998 to 2001, he worked for the Department of Justice’s antitrust division, focusing on the telecommunications sector. Then, in 2001, he took what has now proved to be a contentious general counsel role at Verizon (VZ).
Verizon is of course one of the internet providers that has long been pushing for an end to net neutrality. In 2014, long after Pai stopped working for the company, it was Verizon that successfully won a battle against the FCC’s 2010 attempt to introduce net neutrality via an “open internet order.” By that point, Pai was an FCC commissioner.
After his stint at Verizon, Pai had gone to work in various roles at the Senate judiciary committee (advising Jeff Sessions and Sam Brownback) and at the justice department, before becoming FCC deputy general counsel in 2007.
In 2011 he went to work for law firm Jenner & Block, which specializes in representing telecommunications firms, but the following year Kentucky senator Mitch McConnell recommended to president Obama that Pai would make a good FCC commissioner. Obama appointed him.
That’s not to say Obama shared Pai’s views—rather, the president was abiding by the convention that the minority party gets to nominate two appointees to the five-seat commission. The other three seats were taken by Democrats.
After Verizon beat the FCC in court in 2014, then-FCC chair Tom Wheeler turned to Title II of the 1934 Communications Act to achieve his goal of mandating net neutrality (the court had said that, without broadband providers being classified as common carriers, the FCC did not have the authority to force them to maintain an open internet).
In his dissenting opinion, Pai argued—as he does today—that the FCC was trying to replace internet “freedom with government control.”
“[Today the FCC] seizes unilateral authority to regulate internet conduct, to direct where internet service providers put their investments, and to determine what service plans will be available to the American public,” Pai thundered, claiming that Obama had “told” the commission to do so.
Obama did indeed ask the FCC to reclassify internet service providers under Title II, though as the agency is independent, he did not order it to do so.
When Trump was elected, it was clear which way the wind would blow. The president-elect had tweeted in 2014 that Obama’s support for net neutrality was a “top down power grab” that would somehow “target conservative media”—there is no basis to this assertion, as net neutrality does not allow anyone to target any particular online service or media outlet; that’s the point.
Pai, in his December 2016 speech, argued that Title II classification was unnecessary as there is “no evidence of systemic failure in the internet marketplace.”
“I’m hopeful that beginning next year, our general regulatory approach will be a more sober one that is guided by evidence, sound economic analysis, and a good dose of humility,” he said, predicting that the order’s “days are numbered.”
Now, with his wish set to come true, Pai has been running a victory lap. Facing opposition from internet pioneers, online companies, members of Congress and the vast majority of Americans—all of whom are worried about broadband providers offering cut-down packages of services rather than the full internet—he released a jokey video scoffing at their dire predictions. (Bonus fact: In the video, Pai does the Harlem Shake with “Pizzagate” conspiracy theorist Martina Markota, who is smoking a cigarette for good measure.)
“You can still post photos of cute animals like puppies,” he chuckled. “You can still binge-watch your favorite shows. You can still stay part of your favorite fan kingdom. You can still drive memes right into the ground. And everything else you ever did on the internet.”
Pai probably didn’t mean to imply that Americans’ general online activities would be driven into the ground. For the sake of the online ecosystem, if Thursday’s vote does go his way as predicted, let’s hope that doesn’t turn out to be the result.