Ajit Pai, the new chairman of the Federal Communications Commission in the US, is the first Indian-American to hold the chairmanship. But before you get excited about the representation of minorities in federal leadership positions, it’s worth learning what Pai actually stands for, and what changes he is trying to bring to the ways we communicate with each other every day.
Believers in the open internet are up in arms about Pai’s plans to dismantle the Obama-era Net Neutrality rules. Pai’s position, though, is only one of many deeply conservative policy planks with which he is planning to refashion—or dismantle—significant government programs and regulations.
Who is Ajit V. Pai?
Pai was born in 1973 to Konkani Indian immigrants from Bangalore and Hyderabad. His parents settled in Buffalo, New York. He grew up in Parsons, Kansas, a small city in the southeastern part of the state that started a recruitment program to attract doctors, like his parents, to the area in the late 1960s. Pai went on to attend Harvard as an undergraduate and the University of Chicago Law School, from which he graduated in 1997. In some ways, it’s a classic upper middle class immigrant, “local boy makes good” story.
Yet did Pai go from “make good” to “do good” after gaining the ability to name-drop prestigious alma maters?
Ajit Pai’s Political Evolution
Pai’s first job after graduating from law school was as a clerk to federal judge Martin Feldman in the District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana. Feldman, a Reagan era appointee, is perhaps most known now for upholding Louisiana’s same-sex marriage ban in a 2014 ruling, being the only federal judge to do so after the United States Supreme court had ruled that a key part of the Defense of Marriage Act defining marriage as fundamentally heterosexual was unconstitutional. While it is of course unfair to assume absolute commonality of beliefs with his boss, Pai’s choice of clerkship straight out of graduation does point to his attraction to arch-conservative legal circles from the earliest days of his career.
After that clerkship, Pai moved back and forth between the government and private sector for several years. Notably, he was Associate General Counsel at Verizon from 2001-2003; Verizon has been a vehement opponent of net neutrality, leading some activists to criticize Pai as a “puppet” for his former employer.
While in government, Pai served as counsel for subcommittees on the Senate Judiciary Committee twice—once while Senator Jeff Sessions was in charge and once while Senator Sam Brownback was chairman. Sessions, of course, is now chief racist at the Department of Justice. Brownback’s major accomplishment of late was practically bankrupting the state of Kansas through a disastrous tax cut policy he implemented as governor.
In 2012, Pai became the Republican appointee to the FCC commissioner job. There are five commissioners at the FCC who are appointed on a partisan basis, although no party is allowed to have a majority of the appointees at any given time. The commissioners are essentially second in command to the FCC chairman.
When new to the role, Pai stated in prepared remarks that his main goal was eliminating the problem of “regulatory uncertainty”:
I know that it has become fashionable in some quarters to dismiss “regulatory uncertainty” as a phantom, an excuse cooked up by corporate America for keeping cash on its balance sheets. But I am convinced that the problem is real… As someone put it to me recently, “Regulatory uncertainty is business uncertainty.” And when businesses are uncertain, they, like you or I, are hesitant to invest…The FCC should prioritize the removal of regulatory barriers to infrastructure investment.
In the same speech he laid out guiding principles like encouraging entrepreneurship, eliminating waste, and increasing transparency—all favored buzzwords of conservative policy makers. Those words usually lay the groundwork for policy actions that expose their real meaning, like giving corporations yet more power and slashing budgets for social welfare services.
But the FCC doesn’t control the Food Stamps program, or protective environmental regulations, where the effects of this kind of conservative ideology are easy to spot. So, how did his viewpoints apply to the FCC’s work, and what does it mean for that work now that he is chairman?
There are a few controversial, nationally important debates that explain the direction Pai is leading the FCC, that span the time from his days as commissioner until now: prisoners’ access to phone calls, the Lifeline program for Americans who can’t afford internet and phone access, and of course the latest bit of impending doom in 2017, the end of net neutrality.
The Prison Phone Call Scam
In 2003, Martha Wright was finally fed up. Her grandson, Ulandis Forte, was inside a prison run by Corrections Corporation of America, Inc. (CCA), and it cost her an insanely high amount to call him. This was because CCA was one of the many prison operators that had “exclusive dealing contracts” with phone companies that allowed those companies what were in essence monopolies over calls made to inmates. It meant that she would have to forgo necessities like medications in order to call her grandson, as he recalled in an emotional press conference.
So, Martha Wright sued, alleging these exclusive contracts violated several laws and the First Amendment. The judge eventually determined her case was one for the FCC, not the courts.
Finally, in 2012, the FCC opened the floor for public comment on Wright’s petition, in order to find ways to reform and regulate the system. In 2013, the agency decided that “market forces were not operating to ensure that interstate ICS [inmate calling system] rates were just, reasonable, and fair.” Therefore, it promulgated new rules to combat this exploitative business practice, like instituting rate caps on interstate calls. In 2015, the FCC placed similar rules on calls within states.
When the original regulations were issued in 2013, Pai issued a dissenting opinion. While he agreed in theory with the need to regulate the phone companies in prisons, acknowledging the failure of the market in this one instance, he thought the FCC’s Order went too far. In typical conservative fashion, he worried that enforcing the regulations would mean the FCC would overstep its bounds on the regular; and that the rates were actually too low to be sustainable for small prisons and detention facilities. (Think, “Too much regulation is bad for small businesses!”)
When it came to the FCC’s 2015 regulations on calls within states, Pai was even more incensed, arguing that agency had no authority to regulate them. That 2015 Order was challenged in federal court and the case was pending when Pai became chairman. He promptly directed the FCC to drop its defense in the lawsuit, and the Order was struck down
So, while Pai claimed to agree with the argument that “family support was the most important factor in helping released prisoners reenter society and in reducing recidivism,” according to his own dissent, and that there was an “obligation of conscience” in addressing high prison call rates, he apparently wasn’t piqued by conscience enough to put aside his ideological viewpoints.
As commissioner and chairman, Pai also took aim at another favorite target of anti-welfare conservatives—the Lifeline program.
Some Get Mad that Poor People Use the Internet
The Lifeline Program, started in 1985, offered subsidies for low-income people who qualify to pay for phone service. Under the Bush administration, cell phone usage was added to the program. In 2016, during the Obama administration, Lifeline made a huge step forward in adding internet access as a service eligible for subsidies. Currently, the subsidy is $9.25/month for users.
So, Lifeline sounds like a great piece of the social safety net that was, ironically, started by Ronald Reagan, the guy who shamelessly popularized the phrase “welfare queen.” You may think you haven’t heard of this program before, but you probably have—if you’ve ever heard a grumbling racist complain about how Obama was handing out “Obamaphones” to poor people for votes, that is.
The FCC doesn’t run the day to day of Lifeline, but it does regulate it. During Obama’s tenure, Republicans were quick to sign onto the “Obamaphone” meme nonsense, disparaging the program for widespread fraud, a favorite pastime of conservatives when it comes to programs that serve the poor.
Pai’s view on abuse of the program was no different, and as commissioner he led a 2015 investigation into the program searching for instances of fraud. A government inquiry independent of the FCC did uncover fraud in the program nationally. As the Washington Post reported this year, though, while there is money wasted in the administering of Lifeline, many eligible people are still not signed up. So, the obvious solution would seem to be to improve administrative oversight and use the program funding more purposefully to expand Lifeline’s availability, right?
Well, if you’re the current FCC chairman, maybe not. Pai seems more focused on eliminating fraud by eliminating access, and selectively reducing subsidies. One of the major parts of his “reform” proposal is to reclassify areas that are deemed Tribal Lands, where Native American beneficiaries get higher subsidies of $34.25/month. Basically, his rationale was that bigger cities that fell within the Tribal Lands designation, like Reno, Nev., should be taken out because there’s enough internet connectivity there as is. Presumably, the market will take care of it. Furthermore, the new proposal would expel most of the current wireless providers that Lifeline beneficiaries use, like those living on Tribal Lands, from participation in the program. To top it off, Pai wants to institute a budget cap that would cripple the program with automatic cuts when spending nears the cap, and even have participants contribute a co-pay.
This is textbook anti-poor conservatism—destroying what remains of the social safety net with a smile, all in the name of freedom and efficiency.
Maybe this all sounds terrible to you, but a little distant, because you can afford your own internet without federal assistance and don’t have relatives in prison. But, don’t worry, Ajit Pai is thinking about you, too.
Ajit Pai Gets Mad Anyone Uses the Internet
On December 14th, the FCC is inevitably going to get rid of Obama-era net neutrality rules. What does that mean? In 2015, the FCC promulgated the Open Internet Order, which partially reclassified internet service provision as a Title II service under the Telecommunications Act of 1996. That change allowed the FCC to subject internet service providers to certain regulations. The three big rules were: no blocking, no throttling, and no paid prioritization. No blocking and throttling are fairly simple: an Internet Service Provider (ISP) like Verizon cannot block lawful content or intentionally slow down or otherwise limit access to lawful content. In other words, if someone wants to access the internet, they should be able to access all of the internet. No paid prioritization means that providers cannot use the infamous internet “fast lanes” that would divide access to different parts of the internet by charging users more if they wanted to go on certain sites.
Pai wants to burn this edifice of consumer protection to the ground. He wrote a dissent to the 2015 Open Internet Order, of course, decrying that the new regulations would lead to “ higher broadband prices, slower speeds, less broadband deployment, less innovation, and fewer options for American consumers. To paraphrase Ronald Reagan, President Obama’s plan to regulate the Internet isn’t the solution to a problem. His plan is the problem.”
Ironically, Pai also paraphrased Obama when he claimed his preferred vision for internet and mobile data users was, “If you like your current service plan, you should be able to keep your current service plan. The FCC shouldn’t take it away from you.”
Now, with his newfound power as chairman with a Republican majority of commissioners, Pai can reverse the progress made by the Obama-era FCC, again under the guise of protecting freedom and consumer choice. And if we liked our old service plans, too bad–we may not be able to afford them anymore.
Ajit Pai may serve as a splash of racial diversity in majority white (and white majoritarian) administration, but he certainly doesn’t serve as a friend to the poor, the marginalized, or the consumers whose freedom he claims to protect.