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Net Neutrality Advocates Blast Trump’s New FCC Boss Ajit Pai

Open internet activists fear Pai will reverse crucial free speech protections.

Not so fast Ajit.

Public interest groups, political organizers and free speech advocates expressed anger and alarm on Monday about President Trump's decision to elevate Ajit Pai, a right-wing opponent of net neutrality, to lead the Federal Communications Commission.

Pai, a 44-year-old Republican and former Verizon lawyer who has served as a FCC commissioner since 2012, has repeatedly opposed the agency's recent pro-consumer free speech reforms. Last month, Pai vowed to take a "weed whacker" to the FCC's policy protecting net neutrality, the principle that all internet content should be equally accessible to consumers.

"Ajit Pai has been on the wrong side of just about every major issue that has come before the FCC during his tenure," Craig Aaron, President and CEO of DC-based public interest group Free Press, said in a statement. "Pai has been an effective obstructionist who has always been eager to push out what the new presidential administration might call alternative facts in defense of the corporate interests he used to represent in the private sector."

In addition to net neutrality, Pai has opposed FCC initiatives to advance broadband privacy protections, to increase competition in the cable "set-top box" market, and to make it easier for local municipalities to develop affordable, high-speed public broadband networks. He's also been a vocal booster for telecom industry consolidation—Pai actually voted against the Charter-Time Warner Cable merger because he considered the FCC's conditions too onerous.

"Throughout his tenure at the FCC, Commissioner Pai has been a steadfast opponent of net neutrality and consumer privacy rules, and a rubber stamp for mega-mergers," Sarah Morris, director of open internet policy for New America's Open Technology Institute, said in a statement. "His anti-regulatory agenda is a gift to telecom lobbyists and a major threat to consumers, small businesses, and the American economy."

Not surprisingly, Pai's appointment as FCC chairman was enthusiastically praised by the nation's largest cable and phone companies, and the DC-based lobbying groups that represent them.

"We will protect our right to communicate, through policy when we need to, in the street if we have to."

Pai has also objected to FCC efforts to rein in exploitative prison phone costs, and to help low-income people afford internet access by updating the Reagan-era Lifeline program to include broadband service. That's very concerning to Malkia Cyril, co-founder and executive director of the Center for Media Justice, a nonprofit group that advocates for digital freedom and inclusion.

"Pai has consistently opposed efforts to keep incarcerated people and their families connected through affordable calls, even though those calls have been proven to reduce recidivism," Cyril told Motherboard. "He has opposed Lifeline rules that ensure modern communications for poor families through affordable broadband, and every other rule that protects the public interest."

"The media rights and reforms we've won that close racial and economic gaps are threatened by this appointment," Cyril added. "Luckily, as the marches of the last few days, months and years show: we will protect our right to communicate, through policy when we need to, in the street if we have to."

Political organizers and activists are particularly alarmed about the threat to net neutrality, according to Winnie Wong, a co-author of the Women's March on Washington unity principles, because net neutrality ensures that the internet remains an open platform for networking and movement-building.

"Net neutrality has become one of our single greatest assets as organizers," Wong told Motherboard. "Now that it's at risk, every single organizer and activist needs to view protecting net neutrality as a primary fight under the Trump regime. We need to build a strong coalition to protect and defend a free and open internet, because so much is at stake."

"The internet is a network of networks," said Wong. "The way we oppose an attack against a network of networks is through a movement of movements."

Political organizers already realize that net neutrality—the freedom to connect—has exponentially expanded the possibilities for online organizing in the internet era, Wong said. That's why net neutrality is essential for modern political movements to build bridges and form alliances across discrete issues and ideological boundaries. Net neutrality ensures an open, distributed platform.

Pai and his Republican colleague Mike O'Rielly now hold a majority at the nation's top telecom regulatory agency, following the departure of former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler and his Democratic colleague Jessica Rosenworcel earlier this month.

In a statement, Gene Kimmelman, President and CEO at DC-based digital rights group Public Knowledge urged Pai to "preserve consumer protections and to focus on driving down prices and expanding choices for all essential communications services while preserving the Commission's recent pro-competitive and consumer protection rules and actions."

That may be wishful thinking. Both Pai and O'Rielly have made no secret of their desire to dismantle the FCC's net neutrality rules, which they have characterized as an egregious example of regulatory overreach, as well as FCC policies protecting consumer privacy and expanding broadband access in poor communities

"I'm optimistic that last month's election will prove to be an inflection point—and that during the Trump Administration, we will shift from playing defense at the FCC to going on offense," Pai said last month during a speech at the Free State Foundation, a right-wing think-tank.

Open internet advocates fear that "going on offense" will mean efforts by Pai, and his GOP allies in Congress, to roll back the pro-consumer FCC reforms of the last three years. Pai is likely to find a willing partner in Rep. Marsha Blackburn, the arch-conservative Tennessee Republican and recipient of mountains of telecom industry campaign cash, who was recently named as chairman of the powerful House telecom subcommittee.

Open internet advocates say that the FCC's net neutrality safeguards are necessary to prevent broadband giants like Comcast, AT&T, and Verizon from favoring their own services at the expense of rivals, or creating online fast lanes for deep-pocketed content companies. Broadband industry lobbyists say the rules have stifled investment, but public interest advocates dispute that assertion.

Andrew Schwartzman, a veteran public interest lawyer now affiliated with Georgetown University Law Center's Institute for Public Representation, said that Pai will be a "formidable opponent."

It's not hard to see why. Pai, who holds degrees from Harvard and the University of Chicago, is considered by friends and foes alike to be extremely knowledgeable about telecom law and policy. He's clerked for a federal judge, served as a senior staffer for two US senators, and worked as a senior attorney at the Justice Dept. Prior to becoming a FCC commissioner, Pai spent four years working in the FCC general counsel's office.

"He is not only an outspoken detractor from many of the important advances we obtained under Chairman Wheeler, but he is also extremely smart and knowledgeable," said Georgetown's Schwartzman, who added that Pai's promotion is a "smart move, because making him permanent chair will accelerate the process of trying to turn things around."

In the short term, Pai's appointment to lead the FCC will not need to be approved by the US Senate, because he's already been confirmed as a FCC commissioner. He will, however, need to be reconfirmed by lawmakers for another term later this year. Judging by the public interest community's reaction to Pai's appointment, that process will be lively, to say the least.