The Internet is big.
Hundreds of cables under the sea connect to hundreds of thousands of towers on solid ground to allow millions of servers on every continent to communicate everything from cat memes to financial transactions, all instantaneously.
Find a spouse or file for divorce. Buy a house or declare bankruptcy. Go to college or waste away playing games online. Virtually everyone in the industrial world pursues public and private life with the equivalent of a supercomputer in their pocket.
At the regulatory center of this almost omnipresent web of ether and wire, in the corner office on the seventh floor of an ugly and unwelcoming building in Washington, D.C., sits Ajit Pai. He is chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. He is one of the most powerful regulators in the world. He doesn’t make for an easy villain.
Otherwise, Pai would shut up about “Seinfeld” and “The Big Lebowski” and “Parks and Recreation,” and start talking world domination. But it doesn’t seem like Pai has any nefarious plans, and if the chairman does, he doesn’t share them during an interview with RealClearPolitics. Instead, Pai comes across as a nerd — a likable techie fascinated by the promise of technology and in love with the idea of limited government.
In a city driven by the pursuit of power, Pai, who was put in charge of the agency by President Trump two years ago, seems more concerned with how, if at all, he should use his. He believes in what he and others describe as “regulatory humility.”
“My own position,” he told RCP, “is that consumers are ultimately better off when the marketplace is unshackled, and when regulators can take targeted action against bad apples in the bunch without presuming that all apples are bad. Or that the apples wouldn't exist but for the fact that the government was taking action.”
This is not necessarily remarkable. Conservatives talk about the dangers of market regulation constantly. And a wonky regulator is not normally newsworthy. Most people aren’t interested in the intricacies of government agencies, let alone the administrators who run them. But then an English comic on HBO named John Oliver helped make an American regulator, whom nobody had really known, one of the most hated men in cyberspace.
At issue was net neutrality. The Obama administration issued new rules in 2015 that forced online service providers to offer equal access to all of the Internet, empowering the FCC to regulate the web as if it were a public utility. Tech giants like Google and Facebook and Amazon favored the policy. But Pai argued that net neutrality stifled innovation with regulations better suited to the era of rotary phones.
Pai promised to kill it with a “weedwacker.” Oliver called him a “serial killer.”
“The dangerous thing about Pai,” the comedian/commentator told viewers of “Last Week Tonight” in May 2017, “is that he presents himself as a fun, down-to-earth nerd.” Behind the persona, Oliver insisted, is instead a corporate shill who used to work for Verizon and who is hell-bent on ending the Internet as we know it.
In Oliver’s telling, if net neutrality regulations were rolled back, even though the web grew up without them, Internet service providers could build fast lanes for prioritized traffic, have other lanes for slow traffic, and shut down traffic to some websites completely. The information superhighway, Oliver warned, would become a smoldering pileup.
“So, sadly, it seems once more we the people must take the matter into our own hands,” he declared, directing viewers to a website set up by HBO called gofccyourself.com, which, in turn, directed viewers to the FCC public comment page -- “where all you have to do is hit ‘express’ and comment, telling Ajit Pai that you specifically support strong net neutrality backed by Title II oversight.”
The clip went viral. Millions of digital comments, some real and many fake, crashed the FCC site. A lot of the comments were vulgar. Many were racist. Few are fit to print.
Oliver, who declined to comment for this story, belatedly attempted to rein in his troll army. He particularly pleaded with his followers to stop the ugly attacks on Pai’s heritage. They didn’t really listen. Somewhere along the way, despite the admonishment, the cyber bullying escalated into bomb threats against the son of Indian immigrants.
A single comedian on cable television didn’t make Pai into the public enemy of the Internet. Oliver certainly never advocated violence. But before the FCC voted 3-2 to repeal net neutrality in June 2018, Silicon Valley and its Beltway allies whipped up a frenzy. A regulatory debate became the tribal blood-feud of the digital age.
“They succeeded to such a degree that regular people truly believed the Internet was going to be destroyed,” explained Neil Patel, a former aide to Vice President Dick Cheney and close friend of Pai. “They threatened Ajit, threatened his children viciously, went to his home to protest and harass his young family and bombarded him with racist attacks all over a pricing debate.”
Pai knows of his villain reputation, though he won’t take the bait when asked about John Oliver. He doesn’t watch “Last Week Tonight,” which airs Sunday nights: “I’m busy enough as it is.” He does watch “Game of Thrones,” which comes on an hour later. And while the chairman is more than happy to discuss those dragons, he refuses to talk about anything else on HBO or to play victim. He said nothing, for instance, about the man sentenced, three days prior to our interview, to 18 months in federal prison for threatening to kill him and his family.
The regulator is, instead, triumphant. He called the fears of naysayers “hypothetical harms and hysterical prophecies of doom,” and a year later Pai points out that a faster Internet has risen from the regulatory ashes. According to one analysis by Internet speed company Ookla, it’s 40% quicker.
“I think if you look at the results year-over-year, they have been largely positive,” Pai said. There is more fiber-optic cable being laid, less regulation, and more private investment in infrastructure, he added, all due to this “radical view” of his “that the Clinton administration got it right when it came to Internet policy.”
“I have to think that the Internet as we know it today would not be what it is had we kept these utility-style regulations, developed in the 1930s, to treat it like a slow-moving utility,” he argued. He quips that he has yet to meet the consumer “who wants the Internet to move as fast as their post office or as efficiently as Amtrak.”
Breaking the Chokehold
In his office, Pai has the standard decorations of a D.C. bureaucrat. Pictures of himself with presidents. Framed pieces of legislation. Diplomas on the wall. But then there is the giant poster of “Ron Swanson’s Pyramid of Greatness,” complete with an autograph by comedian Nick Offerman who plays that hard-nosed, mustachioed libertarian municipal worker on NBC’s “Parks and Recreation.”
Pai walks by it every morning, reminding himself to “never half-ass two things, whole-ass one thing.” That tagline from Offerman, he said, giggling a bit, “is the sort of mentality I try to bring to the job.”
Mark Cooper gets the joke but doesn’t take the chairman lightly. Director of research at the Consumer Federation of America, he called Pai the “Donald Trump of the communications sphere,” placing the regulator smack dab in the middle of a larger debate between “progressive capitalism and market fundamentalism.”
“We had a much better economic performance when we had a good progressive performance that the business guys bought into,” Cooper told RCP, recalling a time when industry welcomed the guiding hand of regulators. “Now they see an opportunity to escape from their social obligations, and let the marketplace decide who wins and who loses. In that case, corporations win, and people lose.”
But Pai is of the opinion that, when it comes to markets, success is not final, and failure is not fatal. In his desk, he keeps old news reports to remind himself of that fact. On top of the stack are dispatches from the 2000s, warnings that the AOL-Time Warner merger would create an unbreakable monopoly with AOL Instant Messenger. Two decades later, the once-mighty AIM is defunct and students study the failed merger in business school. To Pai, the lesson is how “technology and consumer preferences often have a way of changing the marketplace in ways that folks might not think is possible.”
Letting government pick winners and losers, allowing regulators to throttle innovation in the name of the public interest, is precisely what he says he wants to avoid.
Pai was born in 1973, the same year researchers at Motorola used a mobile phone to call their rivals at Nokia. “Think about how long it took for cellphones to take off after that,” he said, blaming the agency he now leads for “keeping a chokehold on the spectrum that is necessary to let those wireless innovators thrive. As a result, the typical consumer had to wait a quarter-century for that innovation to take off.”
Another thing that explains Pai’s regulatory humility? He thinks the FCC has blood on its hands. Literally.
The victim was Edmund Armstrong, the father of FM radio. Pai tells the story of how the inventor varied the frequency of radio waves in the 1930s to eliminate static, how he won legal battles to preserve his patents, how the federal government eventually banished FM radio to a higher frequency to favor television.
“It took the FCC so long to finally come around to FM, and even when it did it kept shifting the rules on [Armstrong], that he ultimately committed suicide,” Pai said. “You can look this up,” he added. “It’s a true story.”
To avoid similar failures, the chairman says he evaluates each of his administrative actions in terms of what the law allows, engineering can achieve, and what the market can bear. “It's not enough to just see a problem, stick a finger in the wind, and try to find a solution.”
There are barely enough digits to stick in the wind, anyway. The FCC regulates just about every radio and television and cable signal beamed through the air. It isn’t uncommon for Pai to meet with AM operators one day and a satellite company the next. One area of focus in this ever-expanding regulatory landscape has been the digital divide between the rural and urban.
When a writer for Vox mocked President Trump for complaining recently that tractors couldn’t hook up to the Internet, Pai cheerfully tweeted back that modern agriculture relies as much on the farmer’s almanac as “GPS-driven combines” and “fiber-fed feedlots” and “Wi-Fi-managed fertilizer apps.”
It was a bit out of the blue but not a stretch for Pai, who grew up in Parsons, Kan., a onetime railroad hub in the southeastern part of the state. His parents worked at the county hospital there, one a urologist and the other an anesthesiologist. A diligent student, Pai excelled in academics; a decent athlete, he played tennis throughout high school. He would have gone pro, he likes to joke, but he decided “to focus on communications regulation instead, which I thought would be more productive.”
A focus on administration wouldn’t come until after Harvard, where he starred on the debate team and sent his first email, and after law school at the University of Chicago, where he studied under Cass Sunstein, who later became Obama’s international regulatory czar. Pai would graduate from there in 1997 and go straight to Washington. He has never left.
Pai started his career at the Department of Justice as a trial lawyer, leaving for K Street and Verizon briefly, and then moving to Capitol Hill with the Senate Judiciary Committee. Along the way, the friendly legal dork attracted powerful political patrons such as Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, who remembers Pai as the combination of “a brilliant legal mind” and a “wonderful, sunny personality that endeared him to everyone.”
“He is surely one of America’s most talented young leaders,” the former attorney general told RCP. “His many friends have been very proud of him.”
Top friends include Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who described Pai to RCP as “an all-star," and who recommended that Obama appoint him to the FCC in 2012. The Senate confirmed him unanimously. Later in 2017, and again at the advice of McConnell, Trump nominated Pai to become chairman. A more divided Senate confirmed him 52-41.
A career that has tracked roughly with the digital age now places Pai at the head of the commission as the Internet emerges from adolescence. Roslyn Layton, who studies telecommunication and web regulation at the American Enterprise Institute, described Pai as the perfect person at the perfect time. “He may be,” she told RCP, “the most competent person in all the federal government.”
Getting the Word Out
Ideological allies echo that sentiment, while even critics begrudgingly admit the same. Love him or hate him, Pai knows exactly what he is doing. He also tells the public exactly why.
While the chairman doesn’t tweet as frequently as the president, his Twitter feed offers a constant peek into Pai’s consciousness. He tweets about the goings-on at his agency. He tweets about advances in telecommunications. He tweets about reality television, about the music of Prince and Mozart, and about bone spurs allegedly growing on the base of young people’s skulls because they’re staring down at their smartphones all day.
Sometimes it can feel a little much, as if Pai is trying to prove he’s not like those other federal regulators. He's a cool regulator. But the habit extends past social media. Pai keeps a regular blog on Medium, sharing his thoughts and working through problems in the open.
Taken together, the tweets and the blog posts, plus his public comments and speeches, offer a regulatory roadmap. Since his second week as chairman, Pai has published every proposed rule and order online three weeks before each FCC vote -- unlike in years past.
“It's no longer the Washington lawyers and lobbyists who can call up a connection downstairs and try to get insights into our non-disclosed orders. Now anybody who has an Internet connection can see what it is we are proposing to do,” Pai says with obvious pride. “Even my harshest critics, I would have to think, would give me some credit, at least, for making the agency more transparent.”
Credit will be hard to come by for Pai, at least in the short term. He signed the order and oversaw the execution of net neutrality. He will always be loathed by those who grieve that doomed policy even as more Americans merge onto the information superhighway.
But Pai has done more than pull the plug on net neutrality. Much more. This year, he went to war with the robocall, that automated scourge, which calls and texts day and night to sell everything from beach vacations to extended washing machine warranties.
Americans picked up and hung up on a record 48 billion robocalls in 2018, according to one analysis, many of them illegal. The scam calls often come from overseas, usually “spoofing” a familiar number to make it seem like the robot is calling from recognizable area codes. The problem has gotten so bad that half of the complaints the FCC receives are about robot telemarketers.
And Pai really does “hate robocalls” as much as anyone. His solution: a tweak to the rules, passed unanimously by the FCC this June, that allows phone companies to block calls by default without the hassle of asking consumers for permission.
The best part, according to Pai, is that the government didn’t really have to do anything. “We're simply saying what the law is,” he explained. “In our view, the Communications Act of the FCC regulations don’t stand in the way of phone carriers taking the steps necessary to protect their consumers.”
Not everyone is so confidant in the benevolence of corporations. Democratic FCC member Jessica Rosenworcel complained that the commission’s victory over telemarketing machines amounts to “pinky promises” because phone companies are under no obligation to actually offer the service. They might even charge for it.
“There is nothing in our decision today that prevents carriers from charging consumers for this blocking technology to stop robocalls,” she wrote after the decision. “I think robocall solutions should be free to consumers. Full stop.”
But Pai still believes that the best thing for a bureaucrat to do is just, well, get out of the way so companies and consumers can sort things out. Pai hopes something similar will happen with 5G.
Radio waves on the 2.5 GHz spectrum were reserved for educational purposes in the 1960s, but Pai hopes that the space can be used for the next generation of smartphones. Carriers such as Verizon and AT&T and Sprint have already launched fifth-generation networks. By auctioning off some of that spectrum, by making more radio waves available, Pai believes the FCC can increase Internet capacity.
“The way for America to lead as a country is for government to put in place the building blocks for 5G success, getting more spectrum out there, making more wireless infrastructure,” he said, “making it easier to deploy wireless infrastructure, and then letting the private sector take the lead.”
The FCC is scheduled to vote on the auction later in July. If Pai is right, and if the votes go his way, it will mean a faster Internet, an Internet that even more people can use, and the crowning achievement of his tenure as chairman.
While some of this is controversial, it’s hardly the stuff of villains. Pai has been talking about all of this -- an end to net neutrality and the beginning of more 5G -- for quite a while. At the same time, it isn’t exactly heroic, according to the standards of the administrative state. The chairman isn’t in the habit of hammering problems with his regulatory powers, if he can help it. Pai would much rather let the market sort things out while regulators like himself, in his words, stay humble.