The vote will likely be hailed in many corner offices, but critics of Pai consider him to be too much of a rubber-stamper for corporations, on two fronts in particular. First, he has vowed to take a “weed-whacker” to net-neutrality rules, which ensure that consumers retain full access to the resources of the internet without having to pay certain gatekeeper companies for it. Pai and other critics of the restrictions say they have suppressed investment in broadband networks and telecom infrastructure. Proponents, including major tech companies like Netflix, say the rules established in the 2015 Open Internet Order are a necessary check designed to prevent throttled “walled gardens” like the one AOL popularized in the 1990s from becoming the way of the internet for everyone.
Local broadcasting is the other arena where Pai has created friction. He has criticized rules limiting the number of TV stations a single company can own in a single market, with his allegiance coinciding with Sinclair Broadcasting’s epic bid to buy Tribune and become an even more massive local-news behemoth than the No. 1 station owner already is.
Given the way political winds are blowing in Washington, Pai’s reconfirmation comes as little surprise, especially after his performance in the early weeks of the Donald Trump presidency earned him the Administration’s full support. Even so, the degree of opposition to his reconfirmation has been noteworthy, as Democrats and activists have assailed his stance on net neutrality and noted that he has never interceded as Trump has mounted at times feverish attacks on the media and popularized the term “fake news.”
In final floor debate before the vote, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren spoke for many of her Democratic colleagues when she accused Pai of turning the FCC into “a big-business support group.” Media companies, drooling at the notion of a Trump-led deregulatory wave, “have launched an all-out assault on every branch of government with only one goal: to make sure the government works only for them and their buddies,” she said. In such an environment, “we need a strong chair at the FCC,” she added. “We do not need a chair who is working for the most powerful communications companies in America.”
Pai, 44, has been one of the FCC’s five commissioners since 2012, a tenure that followed positions as in-house counsel for Verizon and in the Office of Counsel for the FCC. After growing up in Kansas, he went to Harvard and earned a law degree from the University of Chicago. As a Republican commissioner, he took minority positions throughout President Obama’s years in office as the commission under Democrat Tom Wheeler sought to maintain strict regulatory controls on the media business.
Reaction to the vote from the established players started coming in after East Coast business hours.
David L. Cohen, Comcast’s senior executive VP and chief diversity officer praised the decision, saying Pai “has favored deregulatory policies aimed at encouraging innovation, investment, job creation and economic growth–all in an effort to best serve consumers.” Gordon Smith, president and CEO of the National Association of Broadcasters, said the chairman “understands broadcasting’s unique role as an indispensable communications medium, and we appreciate his effort to ease outdated regulatory burdens on local radio and TV.”