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.
Pai has said net neutrality will be “reversed by Congress or overturned by a future commission”
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.
Pai has criticized his predecessor’s partisan approach to rulemaking
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.
Correction: Pai needs to be reconfirmed by the Senate this year before receiving a new five-year term. This story has also been updated to clarify that the majority party can only hold three out of the commission’s five seats.