It's a question worth asking: Why is the FCC boss being such a jerk?
The answer – because net-neutrality slayer Ajit Pai wants to stay in charge
Special report This week, Ajit Pai, chairman of America's broadband watchdog, decided to reignite the contentious debate over net neutrality – by proposing scrapping the country's open internet safeguards.
The move was not unexpected. But what was surprising was how FCC chair Pai decided to relay it: rather than outline the logical policy reasons for why such a big change was necessary, he instead embarked on a fact-free, frequently misleading and highly partisan speech that bordered on a rant, even going so far as to mock and dismiss anyone who opposed his idea.
Interest in the decision was significant but rather than talk to any number of telecom policy experts or reporters about the topic, Pai instead decided to give an exclusive interview with Breitbart – the hard-right website masterminded by odious presidential Svengali Steve Bannon. An odd choice.
Pai has been avoiding interviews for months with journalists who cover communications, technology, and policy, only turning up to softball interviews with outlets that he knows will praise him or light TV shows more interested in fashion trends than telecom policy.
Earlier this month, when tech scribe Jon Brodkin complained he had been asking for an interview with Pai for months, Pai responded on Twitter with: "Can't imagine why," alongside screengrabs of the reporter's critical posts about him.
When Pai's not repeating conspiratorial talking points, he accuses individuals of being socialists and lovers of the Venezuelan regime, advocates of net neutrality as being out-and-out liars, and a huge percentage of American citizens as being hypocritical and anti-free speech.
In short, the head of a federal regulator, who has to oversee serious and complex tasks and find the optimal solution to a wide range of issues that affect tens of millions of people, is increasingly acting like a dick. But why?
Where it went wrong
When the net neutrality rules were passed in 2015, the two Republicans on the five-person committee of the FCC, Pai and colleague Michael O'Rielly, voted against it.
The vote acted as a kind of partisan watershed at the federal regulator: the organization had always been political but generally worked hard to reach consensus. Differences of opinion were largely the result of personal belief and philosophy, not party political stances.
That all changed when President Obama made a highly unusual public intervention in a YouTube video in November 2014, in which he urged the FCC to reclassify broadband providers as "Title II" providers – something that would treat them as utility providers rather than free market companies.
To Republicans, especially on the far right, this was everything they had been complaining about for the previous six years. It was direct interference in a largely independent organization. It was government regulation writ large. It was Obama. It was just plain wrong.
And worst of all, the FCC – which had been wavering between Title II and a hybrid solution devised by then-FCC chairman Tom Wheeler that would split internet access into "wholesale" and "retail" – did what Obama proposed, and went for Title II. The Republicans blew a gasket. And as a result, politics flooded into the watchdog.
From that point, with no love lost between the FCC's three Democrats and their Republican counterparts, as well as between the FCC majority and the cable industry that the regulator had overseen for decades, the rupture intensified.
Egged on by his "special counsel" and later "counselor to the chairman," Gigi Sohn, Wheeler proposed a whole range of new rules that went directly against Big Cable's interests: expanded data privacy rights; an overhaul of backhaul competition; forced public disclosure of broadband specs and data; and – most infuriatingly for Big Cable – an effort to end their multi-billion-dollar cable box rental rip-off.
The result was that Big Cable, with its army of lobbyists and hefty war chests, gave up even communicating with the Democrats and focused their attention on Republicans. The result was rhetoric that grew hotter and crazier by the day.
At a Congressional hearing, the FCC's commissioners suddenly started trading blows. At one, Ajit Pai – who had always used colorful language but had really started moving away from considered lawyer speak and into political speechmaking – began feeding the partisan monster.
The FCC's media relations office had been "transformed from a shop of career staffers dedicated to representing the interests of the agency as a whole into a propaganda machine for the Chairman's Office," he railed. The staff was feeding information to the press and supporters and leaving the commissioner in the dark, he complained.
This was catnip to Republicans, and before you knew it, Pai found himself pulled into the inner circles of Congressional politics, trading information and issuing statements that reflected the Republican party line.
In turn, what he told Congressional Republicans started being relayed publicly by senior politicians. Pai became their man in the FCC and a "rising star."
The collusion became so obvious that Senate Democrats officially asked Pai and his Republican colleague to hand over emails covering their interactions over concerns that what they were doing was seriously improper. Pai and O'Rielly simply refused to hand anything over.
And that was the point at which Ajit Pai started becoming a real dick.