By Karl Bode
While many GOP members continue to happily undermine democracy by fueling Trump’s baseless electoral fraud claims, FCC boss Ajit Pai won’t be coming along for the ride. In a statement, Pai confirmed that, as is custom, he’ll be stepping down as agency head on January 20 as the Biden administration takes over. Historically, the party that controls the White House controls both a 3-2 commissioner majority, and the top spot at the agency.
Pai’s tenure wasn’t entirely devoid of value. The agency boss did oversee massive and noncontroversial wireless spectrum auction efforts that will deliver troves of valuable spectrum to market, and spearheaded the creation of the nation’s first suicide prevention hotline (988).
But by and large Pai’s tenure was comprised of a parade of industry-cozy policies, bad data, hubris, and in many instances, outright lies.
The shining example of this was Pai’s net neutrality repeal, which not only killed net neutrality rules, but the agency’s ability to hold telecom giants accountable for much of anything. The repeal took the consumer protection authority of an agency crafted to police telecom, and shoveled it to the FTC — which lacks the resources or authority to do the job (which is precisely why the industry wanted this to happen).
To force this hugely unpopular proposal through, Pai lied repeatedly about net neutrality’s impact, claiming the modest rules (by international standards) had demolished telecom sector investment. Once repealed, Pai lied just as often about how the repeal had resulted in a huge spike in investment (it hadn’t). When reporters contacted Pai’s FCC to fact check the agency’s dodgy numbers, they were literally directed to telecom lobbyists who’d provided the false data. Reporters who asked tough questions were effectively blacklisted during Pai’s tenure.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, Pai’s office blocked law enforcement inquiries into the broadband industry (and Trumpland’s) use of fake and dead people to provide bogus public support for unpopular policies. And when genuine, pissed off, John Oliver viewers wrote to the FCC to complain swamping the FCC website, FOIA data revealed that Pai’s office repeatedly lied and claimed it had been the victim of a DDOS attack. The entire affair culminated in Pai dancing with a pizzagate conspiracy theorist in a video the internet would like to forget.
As such Pai’s tenure wasn’t just pockmarked by bad data and bad policy, it was, as is custom for the Trump era, a shining example of trolling as a government policy, where policymakers take an active enjoyment in being insufferable and hostile. Hostile to the press. Hostile to the public. Hostile to experts and expert data, especially if those experts question entrenched industry ideology.
Pai and friends spent years proclaiming that some modest net neutrality rules were an utterly vile example of “government run amok.” Pai’s FCC then immediately pivoted on a dime and supported Trump’s utterly idiotic plan to have the FCC regulate social media, despite having no authority in that arena. From beginning to end, the entire saga was a pile of lies, nonsense, and hypocrisy. It was not only bad and unpopular policy, at every turn it was done so in a way that poured lemon juice in the wound of those genuinely interested in consumer welfare and data-based decision making.
Of course there are numerous other Pai-era efforts that were equally contemptible. Again using bunk data, Pai orchestrated a massive rollback of decades-old media consolidation rules designed to protect small and mid-sized businesses from giant media (and telecom) monopolies. He also spent years targeting Lifeline, a Reagan-era effort that provides a measly $9.25 to low-income homes to be used on phone, broadband or wireless service. And that’s when Pai wasn’t busy rubber stamping job and competition killing mergers or trying to ban states from being able to protect consumers in the wake of federal apathy.
Of course in Pai’s head, he remains convinced he did wonders for the American consumer:
“I’m proud of the reforms we have instituted to make the agency more accountable to the American people.”
Except with a few exceptions (mostly related to noncontroversial spectrum policy), it’s hard to see Pai’s tenure at the agency as little more than a giant middle finger to accountability and the American public. He effectively neutered the agency’s consumer protection authority at lobbyist behest, utterly fabricated justifying data, then turned around and undermined the only chance the public had to have its voice heard. All right before the U.S. was struck by an historic public and human health crisis revealing broadband’s essential role as a connective utility.
This being the post-truth era, entrenched telecom monopolies and their various policy tendrils will inevitably applaud Pai’s tenure as the pinnacle of innovation and regulatory “reform.” But history won’t be kind to a man who rubber stamped every fleeting whim of U.S. telecom monopolies with a disdain for real world data and the public welfare never before seen at the agency (though FCC boss turned top cable lobbyist Michael Powell occasionally got close). If respectful, data-driven policy making is the ideal, Ajit Pai’s tenure was the exact opposite of that.
Most of Pai’s policies will, in time, be reversed. Pai himself will likely now either jump to a telecom-backed think tank (where he’ll be handsomely rewarded for his slavish devotion to unpopular telecom monopolies and fabricated data), or pursue post-FCC political ambitions, where he’ll need to be hopeful that angry Millennial voters have a very short memory.