Who is Ajit Pai, the “Trump soldier” remaking America’s internet?

Light touch.
Light touch.
Image: Reuters/Aaron P. Bernstein
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Update, Dec. 14 at 1:45pm: The FCC voted 3-2, with Pai casting the deciding vote, to repeal net neutrality.

Donald Trump’s new Federal Communications Commission chairman Ajit Pai promised last December to bring a “weed-wacker” to the agency that oversees the US’s media and telecommunications industries. He appears to be wielding a chain saw instead.

Since taking the office in January, Pai, 44, a former attorney for Verizon and Congressional aide to attorney general Jeff Sessions, has trashed rules that protected local media competition, eviscerated a program that gives poor people greater access to the internet, and decided that competition exists even when there’s just one internet provider in a market.

On Tuesday (Nov. 21), he made the most brutal cut so far, saying the commission plans to wipe out net neutrality rules that require that all data that goes over the internet is treated the same. The move could force US companies and consumers to pick and choose what they can access online, and let broadband companies dictate what content they see, further dividing the fractured country by politics and paycheck.

Consumer groups that have fought long and hard for Americans to have equal access to the internet say the personable Pai, who joined the FCC in 2012, is taking Trump’s anti-regulatory push to a surprising extreme. It’s a remarkably unpopular stance for a Republican many think hopes to become senator or governor of his home state of Kansas some day.

“He’s such an interesting character in the Trump administration, because he is qualified for his job,” said Craig Aaron, the president of Free Press, an activist group, taking a swipe at Trump’s more inexperienced Cabinet picks. But since Pai took the job, “he has taken a scorched earth approach to everything that was passed in the previous FCC and a lot of things that were passed much earlier.”

Pai has “set out to completely defang the FCC,” Aaron said. He’s pushing “a really aggressive agenda to benefit the biggest companies,” and to show himself as a great “soldier” for Trump, he said.

That’s the point, Pai’s supporters say. Forget the White House’s other achievements, Adam Brandon, the president of libertarian advocacy group FreedomWorks said while introducing Pai at a speech in April, “the things that chairman Pai is working on right now potentially will have the longest impact coming out of this administration.”

“I look forward to returning to the light-touch, market-based framework that unleashed the digital revolution and benefited consumers here and around the world,” Pai said (pdf) in a statement announcing the rollback of net neutrality rules on Nov. 21. Pai was unavailable for an interview, a FCC spokesman said, and the agency didn’t answer specific emailed questions about his motives and ideology.

An unexpected hardliner

Pai’s parents, both doctors, hail from the south Indian cities of Bangalore and Hyderabad. He was born in Buffalo, New York, two years after his parents moved to the US, grew up in rural Kansas, and went to Harvard University.

In a speech at the US-India Business Council in March, he described his family’s journey as the “American Dream manifest:”

In 1971, they came to the United States with just a radio and ten dollars in their pockets. Like so many immigrants, they sacrificed to give me opportunities not available to them as children…Forty-six years after my parents’ journey from India, here I am, the grandson of a spare auto parts salesman and a file clerk, tapped by the President of the United States to be the nation’s chief communications regulator.

His hard-line policies at the FCC seem to have surprised some who knew him long before he took the job.

“Ajit was an excellent debater and a better hearts player,” Brian Galle, a former teammate on the Harvard debate team and a law professor at Georgetown University, emailed Quartz in response to questions. “I have seen him consume more mangoes in a single day than any human should be able to safely digest,” he added.

“Like a lot of people (except, apparently, Paul Ryan),” Galle said, Pai “has changed his mind about some of his political views. I have a lot of respect for his smarts, and I wish we now agreed more on policy.”

Pai comes across as a “very intelligent, pleasant, nice fellow,” said Michael Copps, a former FCC Commissioner and advisor to Common Cause, a grassroots group based in DC that aims to “hold power accountable.” Pai was nominated to be an FCC commissioner by Barack Obama, part of agency’s unusual structure of balancing four of its top seats among Republicans and Democrats.

When Pai was promoted in January to chairman, Copps congratulated him on the job. But on Tuesday, Copps said his reign has devolved into a “farce and a tragedy.”

“When it comes to regulating in the public’s interest,” Copps told Quartz, “and implementing the spirit behind the Telecoms Act, I think he is not very dedicated to that.”

Politics or policy?

The battle over who controls Americans’ access to the internet traces back to the 1996 Telecommunications Act, the first time the federal government rewrote rules about America’s communications network since the 1930s. As Copps notes, the act mentions the term “public interest” over 110 times.

For the first 10 years after the act was passed, the effort to keep the internet “neutral”—with access to the internet and delivery of data treated the same way—was often a Republican one, supported by George W. Bush appointees. But in recent years, as the Tea Party and other libertarians gained greater control of the Republican party, and the Obama administration extended federal consumer protections, things shifted.

Now, like nearly everything else in Washington, the fight is deeply partisan. Pai’s pledge to change net neutrality on Nov. 21 specifically targets rules passed in 2015 by Barack Obama that make access to the internet equivalent to a public utility, and ban internet providers from blocking content or slowing down access to certain sites.

The conglomerates that provide internet services including Viacom, AT&T, and Comcast are lined up with Tea Party Republicans like Texas senator Ted Cruz behind Pai. Groups like FreedomWorks aren’t against net neutrality in principle, said Patrick Hedger, the group’s director of policy, just the way it is being enforced. Treating the internet like public utilities and railroads “could box out new entrants,” Hedger said, creating regulatory barriers so high that no one wants to invest in the industry.

On the other side, the entertainment industry, Silicon Valley giants like Google, and consumer groups are lined up with Democrats and more mainstream Republicans, who have long said FreedomWorks and others are being bamboozled by the big telecoms, and deep-pocketed political donors like the Koch Brothers who stand to benefit from lighter regulation overall.

“I am furious to learn that President Trump’s hand-picked FCC chairman will overturn net neutrality, taking away Americans’ right to a free and open internet,” Tim Ryan, a Democratic representative from Ohio, said on Nov. 21. It is “yet another example of the Republican Party siding with multinational corporations and big business over the interests of the American people.”

Just as is true in the recent Congressional push for health care and tax reform, this battle seems to ignore the fact that US voters have an obvious preference. US citizens overwhelmingly favor keeping net neutrality regulations, a July poll by a Republican group (pdf) found, including Trump voters who voted three-to-one in favor. (They also overwhelmingly favor fixing the healthcare system known as Obamacare, rather than repealing it, and not lowering taxes on the rich).

“Whether you’re a Trump voter or a Democrat, you believe that the internet has gotten better over the past three years,” said Chip Pickering, the CEO of Incompas, an internet association that published the July poll, and a former Republican member of Congress who led the first effort to pass net neutrality rules.

“If the country is divided on everything right now, this is the one issue where people have agreement,” Pickering said. Making the internet more like cable is “bad politics and bad policy,” Pickering said.

Does everyone hate Ajit?

Pai is a popular target of ridicule on the internet he’s trying to regulate, and offline.

Someone has started AjitVPai.com, a Github-powered website that anyone can contribute to with the tag line “Ruining the internet as we know it.” He didn’t attend a recent panel in Washington, D.C. by anti-monopoly group Open Markets Institute, but he was a hot topic of conversation. “Isn’t Ajit Pai the worst,” one attendee griped to the other during the coffee break—typical small talk at the event.

Dozens of heavily annotated articles in tech publications dissect and refute Pai’s argument against net neutrality rules. Tuesday’s announcement started an outpouring of social media criticism directed at him and the FCC from Hollywood and Silicon Valley. Big Bang Theory executive producer Bill Prady, and companies like Netflix chimed in:

The groundswell of anti-Ajit sentiment started in earnest with late night comedian John Oliver, who has made net neutrality a personal cause this year, and singled out Pai on his HBO show, Last Week Tonight.

“The dangerous thing about Pai is he presents himself as a fun, down-to-earth nerd,” Oliver said in May, before embarking on an virtual dressing-down of Pai that mocked everything from his love of the movie Big Lebowski, to his giant coffee mug, to his interpretation of infrastructure investment (starting at 6:30):

Pai responded with a video of himself reading mean tweets, in the style of another late-night talk show segment:

Ahead of an already uncertain 2018 midterm elections, as Trump plumbs record lows for presidential popularity, why is Pai pushing this unpopular idea?

Pai believes it will allow smaller companies to make bigger investments internet infrastructure, he told Fox New on Tuesday. “All we are simply doing is putting engineers and entrepreneurs, instead of bureaucrats and lawyers, back in charge of the internet,” Pai said.

FreedomWorks’ Hedger argues it’s now or never, as criticism of Pai’s plan increases and the 2018 elections loom. “If the cards are completely stacked against him,” said Hedger, “why not use the window of opportunity we do have?”

What about US consumers?

Dressing down of Pai on late night television and social media might make for entertaining viewing, but the FCC changes he is spearheading could seriously impact Americans’ quality of life, consumer advocates warn.

Besides the net neutrality rollback, the commission has already voted to substantially change the “Lifeline” program created during Ronald Reagan’s presidency, which gives subsidies to low-income households to buy telecommunications services. Under the new rules, millions of households may find their internet access cut off, public advocates say.

Dozens of citizens groups, senior citizens groups, and even a trade group representing “wireless” companies like Samsung and Apple spoke up against that decision.

Activists are already threatening to challenging the Lifeline decision and the net neutrality rollback in court, and it is there that Pai’s legacy will be determined. “From his perspective I’m sure he sees himself as a very successful FCC commissioner” already, said Copps. “We’ll have to wait and see if he can survive inspection by the courts.”