In March, Ajit Pai, the 45-year-old chair of the Federal Communications Commission, took to the internet—a community he joyfully inhabits and grudgingly regulates—to pay tribute to his favorite movie. “It’s not just, like, my opinion, man: 20 years ago today, #TheBigLebowski—the greatest film in the history of cinema—was released,” Pai wrote on Twitter. “Decades on, the Dude still abides and the movie really ties us all together.” And sure enough, the response to Pai’s cheerful tweet was united.
You’re out of your element Ajit.
Yes, Ajit. Stop trying to mingle with humans.
I hope you enjoy watching that movie alone since you have zero friends
No one likes you dork
The insults, hundreds upon hundreds of them, accumulated in his replies. Some took the form of incredulous Jeff Bridges GIFs, others mimicked famous lines of Lebowski dialog. (“Shut the fuck up, Ajit.”) People debated whether Pai was more like one of the movie’s nihilist kidnappers or its corporate stooge.
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The competition is stiff, but Pai may be the most reviled man on the internet. He is despised as both a bumbling rube, trying too hard to prove he gets it, and a cunning villain, out to destroy digital freedom. (As one mocking headline put it: “Ajit Pai will not rest until he has killed The Big Lebowski, too.”) The anger emanates from his move, shortly after being appointed by Donald Trump, to repeal Obama-era net neutrality regulations. He called his policy the Restoring Internet Freedom Order, an Orwellian touch in the view of his critics, who see it as a mortal threat.
In the simplest terms, the principle of net neutrality prevents internet service providers, such as Verizon or Comcast, from manipulating network traffic for discriminatory purposes. Defenders contend that, without such rules, those companies could exert nefarious powers. They might slow down Netflix, making movies like The Big Lebowski unwatchable, in order to push captive subscribers to their own properties, a prospect that becomes more plausible as telecoms like AT&T and Verizon expand into content. They could charge tech companies extra fees to reach customers, giving a competitive advantage to those that pay. They could starve a startup or stifle a voice of dissent. Pai discounted such scenarios, calling them “hypothetical harms and hysterical prophecies of doom,” and pointed out that there was little evidence of such behavior before the Obama administration imposed the regulations in 2015. But the opposition, drawing energy from the broader anti-Trump resistance, was not persuaded by his reassurances. “If you’re not freaking out about net neutrality right now,” the activist group Fight for the Future warned its followers last year, “you’re not paying attention.”
Pai sought to defuse suspicions by presenting himself as an affable nerd, dropping conspicuous references to Star Wars and comic book heroes. But the internet wasn’t buying it. Last May, after satirist John Oliver delivered a scathing monologue ridiculing what he called Pai’s “doofy, ‘Hey, I’m just like you guys’ persona”—he focused on Pai’s habit of drinking from a giant novelty coffee mug at meetings—and calling on viewers of Last Week Tonight to stand up for net neutrality, the FCC’s website received an onslaught of comments against the repeal. Most simply voiced support for Obama’s policy, but some spat racist vitriol at Pai, who is a child of Indian immigrants, or even threatened his life. Trolls tracked down review pages for his wife’s medical practice and filled them with abusive one-star reviews. Perhaps unwisely, Pai kept trying to fight back on the internet’s own terms. He jousted with celebrities and nobodies on social media. He staged self-conscious stunts, like appearing in a video entitled “7 Things You Can Still Do on the Internet After Net Neutrality,” in which he posed as a Jedi and danced to “Harlem Shake” with a bunch of young conservatives. But the video just inflamed the internet. On Twitter, Mark Hamill—Luke Skywalker himself—jeered at Pai, calling him “profoundly unworthy” to wield a lightsaber. Someone else quickly identified a young woman dancing next to Pai as a right-wing conspiracy theorist who had helped spread “Pizzagate,” a hoax scandal from the lunatic fringe that linked Hillary Clinton to a child-abuse ring.
On December 14, as that spectacle of Pai cavorting with the far right was zipping around the world, the FCC commissioners met to consider the fate of net neutrality. Demonstrators rallied outside the agency’s headquarters, but Pai appeared unperturbed as he and his four fellow commissioners filed into a fluorescent-lit chamber. By Washington tradition, the FCC’s membership is divided, with two seats picked by the opposition’s congressional leaders. His two Republican colleagues spoke in favor of the repeal, while the two Democrats offered harsh dissents. The chair had the final word. “The internet has enriched my own life immeasurably,” Pai said. “In the past few days alone, I’ve set up a FaceTime call with my parents and kids, downloaded interesting podcasts about blockchain technology, I’ve ordered a burrito, I’ve managed my playoff-bound fantasy football team. And—as many of you might have seen—I’ve tweeted. What is responsible for the phenomenal development of the internet? Well, it certainly wasn’t heavy-handed government regulation.”
As Pai spoke, there was furtive commotion in the back of the room. A hulking armed guard stepped forward. “On advice of security, we need to take a brief recess,” Pai said abruptly, and then stood up and hurried out a side door. A murmur went through the audience: bomb threat.
The room was evacuated and searched. Eventually everyone returned and Pai called for a vote. The repeal passed, 3–2. Pai took a satisfied sip from his much-maligned coffee mug.
People who know Pai swear that his nerdy persona is authentic. And even his adversaries will admit that he’s an anomaly in the Trump administration: a skillful practitioner of the Washington game. Pai has spent his entire professional life in the capital, acquiring influential patrons (Mitch McConnell, Jeff Sessions) and insider expertise. As Harold Feld, an ardent critic who works for the consumer advocacy group Public Knowledge, laments, “Why was my area of policy the one that got the guy who actually knows what he’s doing?”
Behind Pai’s brainy, technocratic mask, though, is an alter ego: ruthless conservative ideologue. In this sense, he is emblematic of Trump’s Washington, where all debates—even the bone-dry bureaucratic ones—have become so heated that they are fought like matters of life and death. Pai’s competence has allowed him to make quick work of undoing the Obama administration’s legacy at the FCC. But his polarizing politics assure that the battle over internet regulation will keep raging. “I like Ajit Pai personally, although I don’t want to defend him in public,” admits another net neutrality supporter. “But you’re not allowed to try to destroy the internet and then be treated well by the internet. The internet should hate him.”
Pai may be a creature of Washington, but he still presents himself as a provincial at heart. He grew up in the small town of Parsons, Kansas, where his parents, both Indian-born doctors, practiced at a county hospital. Pai’s connections to the wider world were AM radio and his family’s satellite television dish. Today many rural communities are without broadband internet access, an issue Pai often addresses publicly. “I’ve been to many, many towns around this country, and I’ve seen how people are on the wrong side of that digital divide,” Pai told students at his old high school in Parsons last September. (He declined to be interviewed for this article.) He told the assembly about a momentous occasion: meeting Trump in the Oval Office for the first time. “You walk out and you see the grandeur of the White House and you think about the fact that you just met the most powerful person in the world, and I couldn’t help but think about a kid I used to know 30 years before,” Pai said. “He was a shy kid, bushy mustache, bushy hair, really awkward talking to people, just didn’t quite know what was going on. He was, candidly, a dork.”
Pai could argue, though, that dorkiness was his ticket out of Parsons. He was a top-flight debater in high school and, later, at Harvard. He arrived in Cambridge as a Democrat, but under the influence of a professor, Martin Feldstein, who had advised Ronald Reagan, he adopted a conservative free-market philosophy. Pai was also put off by the racial politics on Harvard’s campus. After the 1992 race riots in Los Angeles, his residential house invited students to post their feelings on a wall—a literal, brick-and-mortar one. Though a minority himself, Pai was skeptical of liberal identity politics, and he wrote that “the real problem” when it came to race at Harvard was “voluntary segregation.”
“Pai is very much casting his lot with this Trump revolution.”
Pai graduated from Harvard in 1994, a year in which two developments emerged that would shape the course of his professional life. That October, Netscape released the first commercially successful web browser, opening the way for the modern internet. A month later, the Republican Party won control of Congress. The spirit of Newt Gingrich’s “Republican Revolution” was strong at the University of Chicago, where Pai had just started law school. He belonged to the Edmund Burke Society, a vocal conservative group, but also studied with Cass Sunstein, a brilliant liberal scholar of administrative law. (Gigi Sohn—a Democrat and net neutrality advocate who worked at the FCC when Pai was there—told me that after a controversial vote, she saw Pai vehemently arguing with someone who had disparaged his knowledge of administrative law on Twitter. Explaining his anger later, he told her: “I got an A in Cass Sunstein’s administrative law class!”)
When Pai later moved to Washington, he joined a cohort of young conservatives who were impassioned about curtailing regulation. “Ajit was a type, as were a lot of his friends from Chicago, that would geek out about the differences in originalist philosophy of Scalia and Thomas,” says a friend from the time, Ketan Jhaveri. “And how to use that to get the government to do less.”
In 1998, Pai joined the Justice Department as a junior attorney in the antitrust division. He was assigned to a task force overseeing the telecommunications industry, which was going through a period of upheaval. Deregulation had contributed to a boom in dot-com stocks, huge investment in broadband, and a wave of telecom mergers. In 2000, Pai took part in an investigation that eventually blocked the proposed merger of WorldCom and Sprint, partly because it stood to give one company a dominant percentage of the internet’s “backbone” infrastructure.
The concern, then as now, was that the company that owned the pipes could also manipulate the flow of data. For practical purposes, some traffic management was essential, but the academics and engineers who pioneered the internet could already foresee how that control could lead to abuses such as blocking access to websites and “throttling”—or deliberately slowing—the connections of certain consumers. In 2002, a young law professor named Tim Wu wrote a short paper that he titled “A Proposal for Network Neutrality.” He framed the issue in modest terms, suggesting a standard that regulators could use to decide which methods of network management should be permitted (for the valid purpose of directing traffic) and which should be banned (for distorting the fundamental openness of the internet).
“I was sure it was a complete waste of time,” Wu recalls of that paper. But the phrase “net neutrality” caught on. Over time the concept has come to mean something far more sweeping, invoked to protect not just bits of data but free speech, personal privacy, innovation, and most every other public good associated with the internet. (Pai has called it “one of the more seductive marketing slogans that’s ever been attached to a public policy issue.”)
The world of telecommunications law is small, and Wu says he crossed paths with Pai around the time he came up with the concept of net neutrality. “Back in the day, he used to throw pretty good parties,” Wu said. Pai was active in the Federalist Society, the intellectual center of the conservative legal scene, but he was a bipartisan networker. He used to arrange large happy hour events, sending out mass email invitations that took the form of clever limericks. “Everyone knew his politics, but it was kind of like a joke,” says Jhaveri, who worked with Pai at the Justice Department and is now a tech entrepreneur. “A lot of our close friends were liberal and would give him a hard time about it, but all in good fun.”
After the Justice Department, Pai went to work at Verizon as a corporate attorney, but his foray into the private sector lasted just two years. He went on to Capitol Hill as an aide to two of the most conservative members of the Senate: first Sessions, from Alabama, and then Sam Brownback, who represented Pai’s home state of Kansas. Unlike his bosses, Pai was not a fire-breather on social issues, but he could see who was on the ascent in Washington during George W. Bush’s presidency. Finally, in 2007, Pai found his natural place at the FCC, taking a midlevel position in the general counsel’s office.
Established in 1934 to oversee radio airwaves and the Bell telephone monopoly, the FCC is one of those government institutions that conceals its importance behind an impenetrable veneer of boringness. The agency has historically had a dynamic of symbiosis—to put it politely—with the companies it oversees. FCC staffers deal mainly with lobbyists, and often become lobbyists, shuttling back and forth between K Street and the “8th Floor,” as the commissioners’ suites are known in Washington.
As Pai joined the agency, activism was starting to stir around the issue of net neutrality. On a basic level, the problem concerned an ambiguity in the way the law dealt with internet service providers. The ones that started as phone companies were regulated under Title II of the Telecommunications Act and classified as “common carriers.” The cable companies, like Comcast and Time Warner Cable, were governed by the more permissive Title I, which covers “information services.” During the Bush administration—after much lobbying, litigation, and a Supreme Court decision—the FCC reclassified all ISPs under the looser designation of information services.
“That deal really was: You won’t be regulated like a phone company—which they hate, it’s very expensive—as long as you invest and serve the country,” says Michael Powell, Bush’s first FCC chair. “And what did the companies do? Over a decade, it was the fastest-deploying technology in the history of the world. They invested over a trillion dollars.” Of course, putting broadband in the less regulated category meant the FCC would have fewer powers to police anticompetitive practices. In 2004, Powell, a Republican, set forth voluntary principles. “It was consciously and purposely meant to be a shot across the bow of the ISP industry,” Powell says. He was telling them to behave or else the rules could return.
Powell’s approach looked feeble to net neutrality advocates, who were backed by an emerging economic and political force: Silicon Valley. Companies like Google suspected—not unreasonably—that the internet service providers, which had invested all that capital in broadband, resented them for skating on their networks for free. The providers were rumored to be interested in charging tech companies for fast delivery, a practice known as “paid prioritization,” and if they started to exploit their middleman position, it could potentially upend the economy of the internet. “I’m not saying that Google doesn’t act out of self-interest,” says Andrew McLaughlin, who helped start Google’s public policy operation in Washington. “But that self-interest was the sense that the long-term future of the internet is better off if it’s free and open.”
The new billionaires of Silicon Valley embraced Barack Obama when he ran for president in 2008, as did many of their employees like McLaughlin, who became a White House technology adviser. “The Democrats won the fight about who was going to hang out with the cool kids,” says Randy Milch, who was then general counsel at Verizon. “Then they carried the water for the cool kids. That’s how this became a partisan battle.”
Obama took up the cause of net neutrality, and his first FCC chairman, Julius Genachowski, cut a deal with the telecom companies to accept new regulations. This incensed congressional Republicans. If Obama favored net neutrality, congressional Republicans were opposed, and the formerly technocratic issue became a right-wing bugaboo. On Fox News, Glenn Beck drew crazed diagrams on his blackboard linking White House aides who favored net neutrality to Marxist academics and Mao. With encouragement from its allies on Capitol Hill, Verizon sued the FCC. This was much to the consternation of the rest of the industry, which considered Genachowski’s rules preferable to the hardcore alternative of common-carrier regulation.
In 2011, when a Republican seat opened up on the FCC, Mitch McConnell put Pai forward for the post. During his confirmation hearing, when Pai was asked about net neutrality, he said he’d keep an open mind as the courts considered Verizon’s lawsuit. Net neutrality advocate Harold Feld wrote an approving blog post, calling the nominee a “workhorse wonk.”
“Boy, was I wrong,” Feld says today.
After McConnell and the Republican leadership sent Pai to the commission in 2012, he revealed himself to be a fierce partisan. He reportedly shocked FCC staff with the militantly conservative rhetoric of his very first dissent, over a small-bore decision about the Tennis Channel. Pai went on to clash bitterly with Tom Wheeler, the Democrat who led the FCC during Obama’s later years. “Pai was running circles around him,” says Craig Aaron, president of the advocacy group Free Press, who watched Pai maneuver in league with Republicans on Capitol Hill. So when a federal court sided with Verizon in early 2014, requiring the FCC to find a new net neutrality approach, Pai was ready. “He went to war,” Aaron says.
The court decision appeared to leave the FCC only one route: classifying service providers under the restrictive rules that covered phone companies as common carriers. This was the outcome the ISPs had dreaded. In 2014, in a move Pai decried as White House meddling, Obama released a YouTube video endorsing this approach. Pai fought against what he called “President Obama’s plan to regulate the internet.” But the regulations passed, and in June 2016 a court upheld them. The issue looked settled. Then, in a turn no one saw coming, Trump won the presidential election.
Pai never explicitly identified himself with his party’s “never Trump” faction, but as an intellectual conservative and the son of immigrants, he has little sympathy for the president’s crass nativism, says a friend who talked to him throughout the 2016 campaign. “I would be very surprised if he voted for Trump,” this friend added. (An FCC spokesperson says Pai voted for Trump.) Still, when Trump won the election, Pai, like many Republicans in Washington, recalibrated his ideological agenda. “I knew once Trump met him and heard his life story, Trump was going to like him,” says Christopher Ruddy, CEO of Newsmax Media and a confidant of the president’s. It helped that Pai’s old boss Sessions was, at that time, one of Trump’s most trusted advisers. When offered the FCC chairship, Pai eagerly accepted the post.
When Trump won the election, Pai, like many Republicans in Washington, recalibrated his ideological agenda.
As the nation’s top telecommunications regulator, Pai’s unofficial duties include presiding over an annual Chairman’s Dinner, also known as the “telecom prom,” a Washington hotel gala filled with inside jokes about cable retransmission disputes and the like. In last year’s speech, Pai offered tips for his newly powerless Democratic colleagues (“Tip #1: Leak … frequently”) and performed a skit in which he poked fun at his own reputation as a corporate shill. It depicted a young Pai, circa 2003, conspiring with a real-life Verizon executive. “As you know, the FCC is captured by industry, but we think it’s not captured enough,” she said. “We want to brainwash and groom a Verizon puppet to install as FCC chair. Think Manchurian Candidate.”
“That sounds awesome,” Pai replied enthusiastically. All that was missing was “a Republican who will be able to win the presidency in 2016 to appoint you FCC chairman,” the Verizon executive said. “If only somebody could give us a sign.” The twangy bass line of the Apprentice theme played, and Trump’s face filled the screen.
It is difficult to serve Trump without getting muddied in the mayhem of Trumpism—as Sessions and many others have discovered. Last fall, when Trump launched a Twitter attack on NBC, suggesting it might be “appropriate to challenge” its broadcast license for reporting “Fake News”—that is, news he didn’t like—the FCC chair kept quiet for days before meekly declaring that the FCC would “stand for the First Amendment.” Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democratic commissioner, says: “Maybe it was fear. But history won’t be kind to silence.”
For the most part, though, Pai has been left to run the FCC with little interference. Trump may love television, but he doesn’t care about the dry arcana of telecommunications regulation. At Pai’s sole Oval Office meeting, last March, Trump mainly wanted to talk about winning and their shared love of football, Pai told others, and gushed about the strategy his buddy, Patriots coach Bill Belichick, had employed to stage a Super Bowl comeback against the Falcons. Insofar as the White House has an opinion on net neutrality, it was set early by Steve Bannon, Trump’s political adviser, who declared that the “deconstruction of the administrative state” would be one of the administration’s core priorities.
The WIRED Guide to Net Neutrality
“It was sort of knee-jerk in the White House,” says a Republican net neutrality supporter who discussed the issue with both Pai and Bannon last year. “Bannon said, ‘This is Obama’s rule and we should throw it out.’ ” Though Bannon has since been banished, the deregulatory campaign marches on. Beneath the fireworks display of angry tweets, Russia investigations, and sex and corruption scandals, Trump has been filling the judiciary and federal agencies with appointees determined to curtail bureaucratic power.
Even before he was named chair, Pai said he wanted to take a “weed whacker” to FCC regulations, and it was inevitable, given his and his party’s hostility to net neutrality, that he would reverse Obama’s common-carrier designation. But Pai’s order went much further. It allowed ISPs to do what they want with traffic, so long as they disclose it to customers in the fine print, delegating enforcement power to another agency entirely: the Federal Trade Commission. “I think most people thought he would take the rules and roll them back in a modest way,” Rosenworcel says. “This was radical.” Effectively, he has set the industry free of the FCC.
Pai has also made decisions favorable to other corporations, like Sinclair Broadcast Group, the owner of nearly 200 local television stations, which is vehemently supportive of Trump’s agenda. Among other things, the FCC eased ownership rules that limited Sinclair’s growth and is reviewing a controversial merger that would allow it to control another 42 stations, giving it a presence in 70 percent of the US. Progressive priorities, meanwhile, have been slashed. The FCC has moved to curtail Lifeline, a program that subsidizes phone and internet connections for poor people. If the cutbacks go through, some 8 million consumers could lose their Lifeline connections.
“Pai is very much casting his lot with this Trump revolution,” says Aaron of the advocacy group Free Press. Pai has responded to Free Press’ net neutrality criticisms by calling the group “spectacularly misnamed,” characterizing one of its founders as a radical socialist. He is even more unsparing behind closed doors. A former employee of a public interest group tells of being berated by Pai for an offending press release. “When you were talking with him privately, he used to seem genuinely interested in understanding,” says someone who has discussed net neutrality with Pai on several occasions. Now, however, his mind is closed to contrary thoughts. People who work at the FCC say that the agency is roiled by internal conflict. “It is incredibly partisan,” Democratic commissioner Mignon Clyburn told me in December. “I’ve been there for almost nine years, and I’ve never seen it to this degree.” In April, she resigned.
How to Speak Net Neutrality
Net neutrality is the principle that internet service providers (ISPs) should not speed up, slow down, or manipulate network traffic for discriminatory purposes. It needs its own glossary.
Blocking and Throttling
The crudest types of net neutrality violations. Blocking means exactly what it sounds like, while throttling refers to deliberately slowing the flow of data.
Without net neutrality, ISPs could prioritize—that is, speed up—the flow of data from certain sites, giving an advantage to companies that pay tolls.
Title I and Title II
ISPs want to be covered under Title I of the Telecommunications Act, which is fairly lenient. But net neutrality advocates prefer Title II, which would treat ISPs as “common carriers” and allow tougher regulation.
A legal concept that says certain entities—like railroads and phone companies—are so important that government needs to ensure they are open to everyone equally.
Gloria Tristani, a former Democratic FCC commissioner who now represents the National Hispanic Media Coalition, went to visit Pai last June, up on the 8th Floor. Sitting in armchairs in the chair’s spacious suite, Tristani tried to broach the subject of net neutrality and the Lifeline cutbacks, but Pai gave her a frosty reception. She says that she tried to be diplomatic, saying that, despite their party differences, she still believed Pai was motivated by his view of the public interest. “He gets up from his chair, goes to his desk, and comes back with a sheet of paper,” Tristani recalls. Pai thrust the paper at her. “He says something to the effect of, ‘You really dare say that to me?’ ” On the paper was a tweet she had written in favor of net neutrality. Posted beneath it was a picture of Tristani at a protest, pointing toward a “Save the Internet!” banner. It was next to a monstrous effigy meant to symbolize corporate money, from which Pai and Trump dangled on puppet strings. (An FCC spokesperson says Pai recalls a less confrontational encounter.)
Pai’s opponents make no apologies for demonizing him, given the stakes they say are involved. Without net neutrality, they predict, consumers could end up paying more money for less bandwidth, while tech companies that have come to depend on fast connections could be faced with a shakedown: Pay up or choke. The service providers scoff, saying they have no incentive to alienate their customers. But if Pai’s enemies and allies agree about one thing, it’s that his policy aims are about something larger than the speed at which packets of data traverse the cables and switches that make up the physical infrastructure of the internet. “I don’t think this fight is really fundamentally about net neutrality,” says Berin Szoka, founder of the libertarian advocacy group TechFreedom, who is well acquainted with Pai. “It’s really about people who, on the one hand, want to maximize the government’s authority over the internet, versus people who don’t trust the government and want to constrain its authority.”
A decade from now, it’s possible that the net neutrality argument will look like the first skirmish in a much larger conflict—one with shifting alliances and interests. For years, the service providers have been telling Silicon Valley to be careful about what they wished for. Earlier this year, Powell, now the top lobbyist for the cable industry, told me: “They are going to lose the war, because they are acclimating the world to regulation. They’re going to be next.” And sure enough, over the past few months of scandals over Russian bots and Facebook data-harvesting, and the ensuing congressional hearings, the notion that the government might seek to expand its regulatory purview over Silicon Valley has started to seem conceivable. The tech companies are suddenly friendless in Washington, facing pressure not only from the left, which now sees them as no less evil than the ISPs, but also the right, which complains that its voices are being muffled by speech restrictions.
It is no coincidence that last year, as the FCC prepared to repeal net neutrality regulations, Silicon Valley’s response was notably muted. The conservative antiregulatory ideology might represent the industry’s best hope for an escape route for an industry that now fears government constraints. And besides, the big tech companies are no longer so sure that net neutrality is crucial to their business models. Even if service providers start charging tolls, the dominant internet companies will have negotiating power. Reed Hastings, the chief executive of Netflix, conceded at an industry conference last year that net neutrality is “not our primary battle at this point” because his company is now “big enough to get the deals we want.” The demise of the regulation could even have an upside for a now-established incumbent like Netflix, protecting its position from upstart competitors. “I think there is a growing consensus,” says analyst Craig Moffett, “that while it’s nice to be able to talk about how an issue like paid prioritization will strangle the next Google before it’s born, no one will benefit from strangling the next Google before it’s born more than Google.”
it is impossible to say whether Pai has killed net neutrality or whether, in the long term, it will return, either through a change of power in Washington, a court decision—appeals are ongoing—or even legislation. It is safe to predict, though, that there will be no peace between Pai and the internet. Over the past year, as he has been parodied and tormented by trolls, Pai has spent a lot of time in real life, on the road, driving rental cars through rural states and promising to bring broadband to the heartland. He has directed billions in funds to close the “digital divide” while appointing an advisory committee to identify regulations that slow down deployment. Even on his signature issue, though, there are problems. The committee is stacked to favor corporate interests, critics say, and Pai’s choice for its chair, the chief executive of an Alaska telecommunications company, created an embarrassing scandal. She resigned last year and was later arrested on federal fraud charges related to that telecom business.
Pai says his rural initiative is intended to help neglected consumers, but his barnstorming has led to widespread speculation that he has one eye on Kansas. “He’s probably going to run for Senate one day,” says Roslyn Layton, a policy expert who dealt with Pai as a member of Trump’s FCC transition team. “He wants to be known as a person from rural America who cares about rural America’s concerns.”
Still, it’s hard to imagine Pai running for office after his recent experience in the fray. He’s proven to be a formidable infighter but a maladroit public figure. Though he tries to maintain an indifferent air in public, people who know him say he has been rattled. Jerry Moran, a Republican senator from Kansas, held a small reception for Pai at a Washington townhouse last spring. The attendees were old friends and colleagues, and Pai became emotional. “He broke down,” recalls Wayne Gilmore, an optometrist who owns a radio station in Parsons. “His family was already getting death threats. It was real.”
“He broke down. His family was already getting death threats. It was real.”
With the darkness, though, comes a bright side: Pai is now viewed as a hero by conservatives. One Friday this past February, Pai went to a convention center outside Washington to deliver a speech to CPAC, an important annual gathering for members of the conservative movement. Out in the corridor, many slim-suited young deplorables with fashy haircuts were milling about, along with a woman costumed as Hillary Clinton in prison stripes. Pai was in the unenviable position of following Trump, who had delivered a rambling stem-winder in which he joked about his hair, maligned the ill John McCain, and talked at length about arming teachers, his response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, the week before. By the time Pai took the stage for his segment, which was titled “American Pai: The Courageous Chairman of the FCC,” the schedule was running around an hour behind.
Pai walked onstage with Dan Schneider, one of the conference organizers. “Ajit Pai, as you probably already know, saved the internet,” Schneider said, by way of introduction, as Pai guffawed appreciatively. “And he spent a lot of hours preparing a wonderful speech that he’s not going to deliver now.”
“OK?” said Pai, who was carrying a copy of the speech in his inside coat pocket.
“As soon as President Trump came into office, President Trump asked Ajit Pai to liberate the internet and give it back to you,” Schneider went on. “Ajit Pai is the most courageous, heroic person that I know. He has received countless death threats. His property has been invaded by the George Soros crowd. He has a family, and his family has been abused.” Then Schneider sprung a surprise. He brought an official from the National Rifle Association onstage. She announced that the NRA, a conference sponsor, was giving Pai an award. “We cannot bring it onstage,” she said. “It’s a Kentucky handmade long gun.”
Pai looked dumbfounded. It later emerged that FCC staffers backstage had prevented the NRA from bringing out the “musket” for fear of violating ethics regulations—and also, no doubt, wanting to avoid the spectacle of the enemy of net neutrality brandishing a firearm, the week after a deadly school shooting that had ignited massive protests. Friends later said that Pai was enraged that his speech on internet freedom was preempted, but he smiled and gave awkward thanks. Afterward he was ushered downstage for a panel discussion. “Wow,” he said, unable to hide his befuddlement. Pai nonetheless managed to hit some of his usual notes, quoting Gandalf the Grey and praising his own decision to take on the interests favoring net neutrality. “Some people urged me to go for sacrifice bunts and singles,” he said. “But I don’t play small ball.”
Pai had been blocked and throttled, but he was still winning.
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