About two months ago, Ajit Pai, a 42-year-old DJ in Goa, India, noticed a puzzling comment on his Instagram. It was abusive, but without any clear reason. The next day, more strange comments began to appear on his account. Some included the hashtag #netneutrality. Finally, it clicked. They were looking for Federal Communications Commission chairman Ajit Pai.
Pai first learned that he shared a name with the chairman six months ago, but it had never been a problem until that comment. Last week, as the FCC vote to remove established net neutrality rules became a national controversy, Pai suddenly found himself at the center of the public’s rage about losing access to an unregulated internet.
“I've been getting death [threats] and abusive calls the whole night, since we are 10 and half hours ahead of your time [in India],” he tells The Verge via email. “My mailbox on www.ajitpai.com is flooded and I need to make my admin empty it out every two days. I can't even count the amount of mentions and comments I get every day.”
Pai, to his credit, is handling the abuse graciously. “Well, knowing this hate wasn't actually meant for me, I was OK with the wrong tags,” he says. “I still reply many times and then people realize it's not the same person, so they're apologetic, some of them continue the rage anyways.” Sometimes he tried to redirect the commenters, tagging the correct Aji Pai that they were looking for. “But I couldn't keep up with the number of posts and soon gave up.”
He isn’t the first person to be confused on social media with a more vitriolic figure who shares the same name. After Vice’s documentary on Charlottesville, people began attacking Halt and Catch Fire creator Christoper Cantwell after confusing him with the crying neo-Nazi who participated in the Unite the Right rally. The two innocent parties have suffered similar fates — extreme abuse by the masses over a case of mistaken identity — and they won’t be the last. No one should violently harass anyone on social media, but it’s particularly egregious when you’ve got the wrong person. In Pai’s case, a sort of guardian angel appeared, a social user under the tag @sigterm_.
“He wanted to help me,” Pai says. @sigterm_, a vocal proponent for net neutrality, wanted to make sure that the comments Pai was getting made their way to the right person. “He said to me he [has] my back,” the DJ says. “I don't know what he did exactly but from that day on, every comment on any of my posts was given a reply by some people unknown to me, saying this was the wrong guy and gave them the correct ID of the FCC chairman. I don't even know if they're people for real or bots on a command. But from that day on I've been more relaxed and there is a whole army replying to every wrong tag on my posts.”
Pai feels strongly about net neutrality and remains stoutly in support of it. He says that India experienced a similar situation last year at the hands of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India.
“They came up with the same stupid plan for India too and the whole country protested the exact same way,” he says. “Repealing net neutrality is like taking away the opportunities from the less privileged independent online entrepreneurs, knowledge seekers and giving only the corporates and wealthy the edge in business and education too. That's kinda undemocratic and unfair.” He likens the role of the internet in the modern world to oxygen. “No one has the right to differentiate between who should be allowed to breathe more or breathe less.”
Pai may never have the chance to speak with the FCC chairman, but he has some strong words for him nonetheless. “If the inventors of the internet never kept a patent, or any kind of control nor rights for themselves over their invention, and gave it to the world for free ... not you, neither any greedy politician nor any over-ambitious corporate has the right to control its flow,” he says.