The not-so-humble Pai congratulates himself for repealing net neutrality in the US

via fickr © Gage Skidmore (CC BY-SA 2.0)

via fickr © Gage Skidmore (CC BY-SA 2.0)

  • Former FCC chairman re-emerges on the fifth anniversary of his ‘triumph’
  • Uses column in magazine to pat himself on the back
  • Exercised blatant partiality in favour of ISPs and cablecos
  • Individual US states passed their own laws to mitigate the worst effects of his actions

Five years on, here’s a blast from the past… Remember Ajit Pai, sometime Trump appointee as chairman of US regulator, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC)? Pai, a lawyer by training and an in-house counsel for the big US telco, Verizon, first became an FCC employee as a junior in the Office of the General Counsel back in 2007, was nominated as an FCC commissioner by Barack Obama in 2012 and made it to the pinnacle of the greasy pole as chairman of the commission in 2017.

Once confirmed as top dog, his partiality in favouring the blandishments and lobbying of the big US telcos and cablecos became blatantly evident and he was assiduous in obeying his master’s voice and leading the Donald Trump administration’s successful efforts to repeal the net neutrality consumer protections that had been put in place in 2015 under the aegis of President Obama. (He stepped down from the FCC in early 2021 as Trump exited the White House.)

Net neutrality, which is often referred to as the ‘First Amendment of the Internet’, is the notion that ISPs should treat all data equally, regardless of what it is or where it is going. It prevented the likes of AT&T and Verizon from determining what traffic would get to its destination the most quickly and which would have their speed throttled or blocked depending on whether or not a premium had been paid for an express service.

The fifth anniversary of the repeal was marked a couple of days ago by the public appearance of a celebratory, the far-from-humble Pai, as he raised his head above the twin parapets of his current jobs at the right-wing thinktank the American Enterprise Institute and at Searchlight Capital Partners, which invests in “technology, media, and telecommunications sectors”

Pai had an article published in that staunchly conservative publication the National Review (subscription required) in which he congratulates himself on doing such a grand job in putting an end to the Obama era safeguards that he called “a solution that won’t work to a problem that doesn’t exist”.

Now is a good point in the story to remember that more than 82% of the US public were against the repeal of net neutrality, but it went ahead anyway partially because of repeated claims that citizens could, in a mature democracy, take advantage of a public comments period within which to register in favour of, or against, the FCC’s proposed action. It turned out that the 2017 window of opportunity to influence federal internet policy was a complete con trick: When the Office of the Attorney General investigated, it was found that 18 million of the 22 million comments submitted to the FCC were rigged, as companies working for the broadband lobbyists manipulated the system in an effort to demonstrate that there was widespread public opposition to existing net neutrality when there wasn’t. 

Expanding his case, Pai noted: “I worried that they [net neutrality regulations] would reduce the incentive to invest in next-generation networks, slowing broadband deployment and prolonging the digital divide. That worry was well founded. Following the FCC’s decision, and for the first time outside of a recession, independent studies showed that investment in broadband infrastructure declined.” That might be the case, but Pai failed to cite his sources, leaving readers wondering about the details.

The former chairman added: “The evidence is indisputable today that in the five years since the FCC’s decision to repeal net-neutrality regulations went into effect, American consumers are benefitting from broadband networks that are stronger and more extensive than ever.” The reality is that quite a few people do dispute that assertion.

Transatlantic claims

Pai also takes a pop at the perfidious Europeans: “The contrast between America’s broadband consumers and their European counterparts during the Covid-19 pandemic is telling. Americans with internet access largely were able to rely on broadband networks to do video conference calls, stream in high definition, and otherwise stay connected. Abroad, however, a key European commissioner felt compelled to ask streaming services to throttle video content to standard definition. Why? Because he feared that otherwise digital ‘infrastructures might be in strain.’ I’d argue they were ‘in strain’ partly because the European Union has had quite strict net-neutrality regulations that meaningfully undermine the incentive for investment in high-capacity broadband infrastructure. Fortunately, neither I nor any other public official in the United States had to make a similar request, then or since.” Hmm. 

Again, the reality is that all European networks stayed up and coped brilliantly well with the crisis as millions of employees worked from home. The networks took the strain brilliantly and the telcos and ISPs got well-deserved plaudits for their stalwart work

Pai also claims that the reason net neutrality no longer commands the headlines is because “the FCC’s decision was the right one: It has resulted in enormous benefits for broadband consumers. Conversely, the over-the-top rhetoric has over time revealed itself to those of good faith as, well…  completely over-the-top. And I suppose those who were simply looking for a reason to be outraged now have moved on to the next thing. In any event, if you’ve read to this point, congratulations: You managed to survive the end of the internet as we know it and can now tell your story – even online.”

What Pai signally fails to do is to mention that the excesses resulting from his abandonment of net neutrality were greatly tempered as individual states did the job the FCC had walked away from and passed their own legislation to keep greedy ISPs and their ilk in check. Neither does Pai refer to the growing importance and popularity of community-owned broadband co-operatives, utilities, and municipal broadband networks.

It’s worth remembering that it's only 13 months since a group of telecoms and cable industry associations, ACA Connects (America’s Communications Association), CTIA (The Wireless Association), NCTA (The Internet & Television Association), and USTelecom (The Broadband Association) finally gave up on their attempt to get the state of California’s very own net neutrality law, Senate Bill 822 (SB822) annulled. The primacy of states’ rights over federal rights has always been a deeply contentious issue in the US: On this occasion, a state won.

Today it is a fact of life that far too many Americans have access to just one or, at best, two ISPs that routinely overcharge for their services, pad out bills with additional fees and provide the most appalling customer service to their contracted captives. Meanwhile the revolving door at the FCC continues to rotate. Nice work if you can get it – and some do.

- Martyn Warwick, Editor in Chief, TelecomTV