Analysis Ajit Pai – the head of America's broadband watchdog, the FCC – has responded to widespread criticism of his plan to tear up net neutrality safeguards by… mocking celebrity tweets.
Perhaps we shouldn't expect more in the era of President Trump where Twitter spats replace policy debate and strawmen strangle analysis, but even so it was stark to hear the head of the federal telecoms regulator namecheck and mock singer Cher, and actors Kumail Nanjiani, Mark Ruffalo, Alyssa Milano and George Takei for their comments about proposed rules that will impact hundreds of millions of Americans' access to the internet.
In a speech in Washington DC on Tuesday, Pai attempted to paint his referencing and quoting of tweets as reflecting broader debate: "Given that some of the more eye-catching critiques have come from Hollywood celebrities whose large online followings give them outsized influence in shaping the public debate, I thought I'd respond directly."
But the reality is that focusing on short celebrity comments is a weak and cringeworthy attempt to avoid answering serious concerns and questions put forward by policy experts. It also continues a disturbing trend of Pai's – who is, let's not forget, is the head of a federal regulator – as he continues to prioritize and pursue his own celebrity status.
It's not hard to agree with Pai that the commentary surrounding net neutrality has become absurd, and he even pitches the fact that on such an important topic "our culture needs more informed debate; quality information, not hysteria." But then he goes on to feed that very hysteria by quoting - and then mocking – the most extreme examples of it.
Green with envy
For example, Pai quoted Mark Ruffalo, who played the Hulk in a recent movie, as tweeting: "Taking away net neutrality is the authoritarian dream." Said Pai: "When I saw this tweet, I was tempted to just say 'Hulk! Wrong!' and just simply move on." But he didn't move on. In fact, Pai wasted time digging into why rescinding today's network neutrality rules was not the equivalent of North Korean governing, debasing the very debate he said he wanted.
He gave the same treatment to an array of other celebrity tweets. And that wasn't all. Pai addressed criticisms of the plan put forward by large internet companies by using yet more strawmen – many of them debunked, one-sided bugbears promoted by right-wing news outlets. Pai again referenced the "blocking" of Martha Blackburn by Twitter. Blackburn created a campaign ad with the claim that Planned Parenthood was complicit in "the sale of baby body parts" – something that is even more "absurd" than Pai's complaints about tweeting celebrities.
Twitter blocked the ad and then lifted the ban following an outcry that was fueled by Blackburn and right-wing media outlets. It was just one more pointless yelling match debasing real debate – but Pai used it as an example to argue why "edge providers" are more of a risk to the "open internet" than ISPs. "So-called edge providers are in fact deciding what content we see," Pai railed. "These providers routinely block or discriminate against content that they don't like."
He goes on to give more ridiculous examples. Talking of Twitter again: "The company appears to have a double standard when it comes to suspending or de-verifying conservative users as opposed to those of liberal users," Pai complained, feeding into the evidence-free persecution argument that is all too prevalent online.
In truth, those that are suspended or lose their blue tick face that action because they have been wildly offensive. But through partisan eyes, that becomes a conspiracy of bias – which Pai is directly feeding despite being in an influential position where neutrality needs to be expected and respected.
He went on to complain about "streaming services restricting videos from the likes of conservative commentator Dennis Prager on subjects he considers 'important to understanding American values.'" And of "online platforms secretly editing users' comments."
There are two very big problems with this approach: first, Pai is simply stoking the fires of the right-left political divide which, again, he specifically highlights as something that people should not do (particularly if they are the head of a government agency); and two, all of these points are, yet again, strawmen and have nothing to do with the actual issue at hand – that of the FCC tearing apart its own rules and introducing uncertainty into an extremely important area of business and society.
Completely deaf to his own actions, Pai even used a quote from one letter sent to the FCC complaining about how one company had held back investing in new technology "due to uncertainty over the FCC's regulatory stance."
But Pai's approach – flipping over rules that were drawn up over two years, and so creating a precedent for his own rules to be flipped again in a few years – does precisely that. In fact, the actual serious policy concerns behind scrapping the current net neutrality protections – protections that forbid fast and slow lanes on the internet, website blocking, and so on – were barely mentioned in Pai's speech.
Instead he simply repeated his own talking points that: today's rules are "heavy handed," that his are "light touch"; that investment in broadband has gone down (a highly debatable point); that his approach will help close the digital divide (it may go the other way) – all without addressing the counter-arguments in any meaningful way.
In fact, debasing serious debate even further, the FCC today put out a "Myth vs. Fact" document that purports to "set the record straight on Chairman Pai’s Restoring Internet Freedom Order." But the document is full of the exact same distortions that policymakers of all persuasions are usually quick to point out.
Just one example:
- MYTH: This will result in "fast lanes" and "slow lanes" on the internet that will worsen consumers’ online experience.
- FACT: Restoring internet freedom will lead to better, faster, and cheaper broadband for consumers and give startups that need priority access (such as telehealth applications) the chance to offer new services to consumers.
But of course the answer doesn't actually say: there will not be fast lanes or slow lanes. This kind of lowest common denominator response is the sort of thing that government departments usually pride themselves in removing. To close out, Pai noted that despite the "wild accusations, fear mongering and hysteria," he was going to press ahead with what his thinks is the best way forward. Maybe someone should show him the video of his own speech. Could be an eyeopener. ®