It took an industry man to ruin the internet as we knew it. The damage to a free and open virtual network wrought by the killing of net neutrality standards hasn’t yet assumed the apocalyptic form that digital watchdogs warned of. But the internet service providers who benefit from relaxation of the restrictions are already taking advantage in subtle ways, toeing the line into future, likely more explicit abuses, while prices for service remain sky-high for low-income users. This is all a gradual rollout by savvy design, thanks to the machinations of Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai.
Pai—who announced that he would be stepping down from the agency after President-elect Joe Biden is officially sworn in Wednesday—may not have been among the most blatantly corrupt lawbreakers who peopled the Trump administration, but he was one of its most apt representatives: laissez-faire, corporate-friendly, never above trolling the libs. Now, the internet is unquestionably a worse place, and the commissioner will take his stupid oversize Reese’s-branded mug wherever he goes next, likely somewhere that allows him to continue to profit from his friendly relationships with tech and communications companies.
Pai has been a public servant for much of his career, having worked in the Justice Department, the Senate, and the FCC, but the most instructive and relevant parts of his résumé have always been his brief private sector dalliances: his early years as in-house counsel for Verizon, and his between-government-appointments time in the communications branch of law firm Jenner & Block, where he represented companies like Securus Technologies and AOL. The D.C. public-private revolving door isn’t exactly a secret or any source of excessive stigma for those who happily participate, but it’s worth extra focus in Pai’s case, since his reign as FCC chair couldn’t have been more of a blessing to those very corporations he once worked for.
Consider the defining aspect of his legacy. For years, Pai railed against net neutrality, the principle that internet service providers should treat all sources of data usage the same and not exercise favorability in providing broadband to their users. In effect, it’s the attitude that the government should ensure an accessible internet to all users, whether they be hulking megacorporations or small-time streamers. Pai claimed, in line with typical Republican reasoning, that staying true to net neutrality neutered ISPs and imposed an unfair, burdensome regulation on the corporations that control our digital infrastructure—such as, say, Verizon Communications. When he was appointed to the FCC board by President Barack Obama in 2012, upon Sen. Mitch McConnell’s recommendation (following a tradition of letting the minority party pick commissioners when the majority party already controls three of the five commission seats), he used his platform to continually undermine the agency’s yearslong attempts to enshrine net neutrality rules into law, even as the FCC’s standards finally went into effect in 2015. And while net neutrality was and still is broadly favored by Americans—including, yes, some Republicans—Pai never stopped trying to gut it, eventually succeeding in late 2017 even as outraged constituents flooded the FCC’s public comments section, making clear their disapproval by crashing that system altogether. Pai very publicly had a great time dismissing these concerns, mocking the public perception that he was a Verizon shill and filming a how-do-you-do-fellow-kids Daily Caller video alongside a Pizzagate truther that claimed the end of net neutrality wouldn’t mean the end of any popular internet activities.
The effect of the neutrality deregulation has begun to play out as activists predicted, with providers like Verizon, AT&T, and Comcast already throttling traffic to certain online services like Skype and privileging effective internet connection to those with money. Not to mention, an Idaho-based ISP recently threatened to kick off Facebook and Twitter altogether after the networks banned President Donald Trump. (It backed off after public criticism.) Pai also tried to prevent states from passing their own net neutrality regulations and, after being halted from doing so by a federal appeals court, raised the fantasy of abolishing the federalist system altogether in order to unilaterally impose his agenda and yank the power of the states to pass legislation he didn’t care for. You know, just a typically Trumpy view of the executive.
Democrats are already looking at reversing Pai’s net neutrality scything, through legislation or other means as they stand to regain majority control of the FCC. But Pai’s damage extends far beyond this one policy. Affordable internet access is further out of reach for rural residents thanks to ISPs’ increased price and traffic control as well as the rollback of an important telecoms subsidy for low-income Americans. Prison communication companies—whose oversight should not have been run by Pai—have gotten away with still charging exorbitant prices for phone and video calls. Big mergers, like that of T-Mobile and Sprint, have gone ahead with barely any questioning or interrogation. Deregulation was priority above all, and the ensuing higher costs and consumer choice decline were, well, apparently just the cost of a truly “free” digital society.
In fairness, it hasn’t been all bad. Really: Pai’s designation of 988 as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline will make a much-needed mental health resource far easier to access. His measures to ensure that families adjusting to remote learning didn’t have to worry so much about keeping their connections alive were a boon when the pandemic first hit. Pai’s FCC cracked down on the out-of-control explosion in robocalls, and he even bucked his own ideological fellows in reducing the power of the ultraconservative local-media empire Sinclair.
But if Pai attempted a balancing act between full-on Trumpist governance and somewhat competent oversight, he may soon find this will not have redounded to his benefit. In facilitating tight corporate control of the internet, he’s contributed to the very splintering of American political culture and weakening of civil society whose fragility he now laments, as seen in both the death threats sent his way and the destruction fomented by Trump supporters’ insurrection. Trumpism could not have embedded itself in American life the way it has without the kind of wealth-friendly internet Pai championed. And by choking free connection, he also happened to make the web a much worse place for all users, including himself and his own boss, who can no longer log on to his favorite social networks. It’s hard to think of a more perfect Trump administration parable than that.
This is part of a series of goodbyes to Trumpworld figures. Read the rest here.
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.