“Civil society is much more fragile than I think Americans appreciate,” says outgoing FCC Chair Ajit Pai
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Ajit Pai, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, steps down next week, as is customary at the change of administrations.
When we talked early Friday, Pai offered a list of things he’s proud the agency has done during his tenure: working to bridge the digital divide, establishing 988 as three-digit national suicide prevention hotline and lots of deregulation under the Trump administration.
But the defining ruling of the FCC under Pai has been his decision to undo something called net neutrality — earlier policies that said internet service providers can’t slow down some traffic on their networks in favor of others. The market, Pai believes, should decide. “A light touch framework,” he calls it, and he thinks it’s worked out pretty well.
An edited transcript of the complete interview follows.
Kai Ryssdal: I want to start by putting your tenure running the FCC in the context of the Trump administration’s deregulatory framework. Because you were pretty much the first out the gate with a big deregulatory move in April of 2017, starting to talk about net neutrality and changing that to your Open Internet rule. Four years on, how do you think it went?
Ajit Pai: Well, what I think is remarkable about the FCC’s record over the past four years is that not only do we modernize our regulations to reduce the regulatory burden in some cases, but we also stepped up with a more interventionist role in cases where the market was not delivering value. On issues such as rural broadband, for example, where there might not have been a private business case for deployment, we provided massive funds through a Rural Digital Opportunity Fund to change that. And in other marketplaces, too. Establishing, for example, that those who are incarcerated should not have to pay exorbitant rates to reach those on the outside. And establishing 988 as a three digit number for suicide prevention and mental health. I think the record of this FCC is not just maximizing the business case for private sector companies deploying broadband and other next generation infrastructure. It’s also ensuring that the public interest is met in those cases where the market wouldn’t do the job.
Ryssdal: Without slighting at all those achievements — 988 and the incarcerated population, to be sure, deserve all the services that this government can give them. I do wonder, though, what your take is on how the big defining move of your tenure — net neutrality — has played out in reality?
Pai: It has been an enormous success. If you look at the facts, as opposed to the headlines that were there at the time, including when you and I talked in June of 2018. We now see that fiber deployments in the United States set a record in 2018 and 2019. The capital investments in wireless cell sites has increased tremendously, a 10x increase over the last two years, compared to 2013 to 2016. Millions more Americans are getting access to the internet, thanks in part to our initiatives to direct funding to unserved parts of the country. And remarkably, the internet remains free and open, that people are able to access content of their choice. And startups were able to innovate on this platform. So notwithstanding the headlines back then, as you might remember, we finished our interview back then by saying, “Look, let’s look at the evidence in a few years,” The evidence is positive.
Ryssdal: That’s why I asked, right? Because there are certainly some moves that net neutrality has brought that the FCC has reason to be proud of. But let me ask you this — to the root of our conversation two years ago, and to the next several minutes of this interview. The internet is even more important now than it was two years ago, right? Because the kids are going to school and everybody’s working from home. We all need it as we need electricity and plumbing. Why should it not be regulated as such?
Fixing the digital divide
Pai: So, I do believe that the debate is no longer a debate over whether internet access is a luxury or a necessity. It’s a necessity — for those of us who are working at home, it’s needed for telework, for things like telehealth, remote learning. It’s absolutely necessary. But the question is, what regulatory framework is best calibrated to make sure that everyone has access and has access that they need? And to me, it’s clear that the utility style regulation that would be imposed under net neutrality does not serve the consumer at the end of the day.
Perhaps the best evidence comes from abroad. In Europe, which has these utility style regulations and treats the internet like the water company or the electric company, regulators had to go hat in hand to companies like Netflix and YouTube at the beginning of the pandemic, and ask them to proactively throttle content to consumers, because they had not had the infrastructure investment needed to keep up. Moreover, there are parts of the digital divide in Europe that are not getting addressed, because there’s simply not an incentive to build those networks. So I know that there are gaps in our digital economy. But the way to fill those gaps is through a light touch framework, not by heavy handed regulation from Washington.
Ryssdal: Well, so look, I mean, let’s compare us to Europe. Our 5G speeds, the next generation of internet connectivity, are lower than many other developed economies. Not to make this all about me, but the reason I’m sitting in a radio studio in Downtown LA is because my home internet service is terrible. I have no recourse; there is one provider. And if you multiply that by millions, then you have an entire economy hanging on monopolies without option.
Pai: So what we’ve tried to do over the last several years is, with respect to 5G, pushing an unprecedented amount of spectrum into the commercial marketplace for the benefit of consumers. In fact, just today, less than an hour ago, the largest spectrum auction in American history closed — the $80 billion C Band auction. We’ve also, as I said, deployed a lot more wireless cell sites in the United States than previously. And ask anyone in the world, in terms of where we stand, and everybody’s looking to the U.S. in terms of 5G leadership because of FCC’s 5G Fast Plan.
I couldn’t agree more that competition is important. And that’s why this FCC, for the first time in history, authorized low-Earth orbit companies like SpaceX to get into the marketplace, encouraged electric utilities, which have a deep footprint in the country to get into this marketplace, made more spectrum available for fixed wireless companies to provide a competitive option. And so I know that again, the competition may not be where we want it to be in certain areas. But this FCC has made historic strides to change that state of play.
Ryssdal: I just want to be clear here. It is after your four years running the FCC — chairing the FCC, because obviously commissioners have their own mindsets. But four years chairing it and eight years total as a member of that body. You think private companies ought to be able to decide this for us?
Pai: Well, I think that in many cases we do. We see a lot more companies, for example, I mentioned SpaceX, spending billions of dollars to launch these satellites. And companies here on the ground, doing the same to get into the business, because they believe in the power of broadband. And some of them many have never heard of. And one of the last trips I did before the pandemic was to Wind River Internet, a tribally-owned internet company on the Wind River Reservation. And to hear from them and Northern Arapaho tribal leaders how FCC funding helped them deploy gigabit fiber to folks who’ve been on the wrong side of the digital divide for years. That was tremendously rewarding. That’s the kind of story we want to see replicated in small towns and big cities alike.
Ryssdal: So let’s talk about private companies here and some of the power they have in this economy. And I need to turn the page to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which, in the waning days of your chairmanship, has become the net neutrality of 2020 and 2021. The provision of the law that gives immunity for social media companies and many others for what people say on that site. Do you think Twitter and Facebook have too much power?
Social media content moderation
Pai: I do think that those companies, among others in the social media space, do not operate by the same principles that other companies in the internet economy do. For example, with respect to Twitter, who makes the decisions about content moderation? How do they make them? Why do they make them? Why is one actor not allowed to post but the Supreme Leader of Iran is? These are the types of things that with respect to internet service providers, the FCC has instituted regulations, making sure that you show your work, as a third grade math teacher might say. And I think that’s part of the reason why in the halls of Congress is a growing bipartisan consensus that we need to reexamine the regulatory framework for these companies. Now, the FCC doesn’t have authority here. That’s a decision for Congress and the next administration to make. But I do think that there’s growing questions about transparency and consistency.
Ryssdal: If the FCC doesn’t have authority here, why did you say a number of months ago, you were going to take a look at a new rule to figure out how to implement 230 at one might reasonably assume, the behest of the president of the United States, who has not been shy about his feelings about this law?
Pai: Well, two things. No. 1, we don’t have authority to change the law, which is what many elected officials are talking about, getting rid of 230 altogether as President-elect [Joe] Biden has stated, or making revisions to parts of 230, other than the immunity provision you referenced. But No. 2, with respect to the Section 230 announcement I made, the Department of Commerce submitted a petition to us and we made an independent determination that we had legal authority to interpret that immunity provision and that narrow provision only. That’s one of the things that we were considering, and we decided that there wasn’t time to move forward. But I do think this is an issue that’s going to grow as the social media increasingly becomes the public square when it comes to political discourse.
Ryssdal: Let me actually just pick up on what you just said, and ask you sort of the following question. In a matter of six or seven days, or whatever it is, you will no longer be the chairman of the FCC. There will be somebody else who will be a Democrat, approved by the Democratic Senate now. And I wonder about this idea that you and I talked about last time: regulatory pingpong. Because net neutrality is going to come back up, Section 230 is going to come up and whoever chairs the FCC is probably gonna have an opposite point of view as to what is the role of Congress in these decisions. Why do our regulatory agencies have to do this kind of pingpong?
Pai: That’s a fantastic question, Kai. And even beyond net neutrality, I think it speaks to something that I’ve become even more convinced of after four years in the chairmanship. Which is that Congress needs to put on the page exactly what the rules should be so that administrative agencies don’t swing back and forth depending on the political affiliation of its leader. Now, you mentioned net neutrality, and that I think is actually a relatively simple fix. No blocking, no throttling, no anti-competitive conduct.
Ryssdal: I can’t help but laugh when you say it’s a simple fix, I mean, c’mon.
Pai: Oh, it is. No, I think it is in terms of the substance. Now, the politics, of course, are much more difficult. But even beyond that, for example, my first major speech as chairman, I urged Congress to think about infrastructure legislation. This is back in 2017, allocating $50 billion, or even $60 billion for broadband. To me, it wasn’t a Republican issue or Democratic issue. It’s simply an American issue to make sure Americans had access to the internet. And if they had done that in a bipartisan way back then, think about how much better off we’d be today. And so I think that it’s important for Congress not to do the easy thing, which is to defer to administrative agencies, which then have to try to shoehorn a policy preference into the law as it stands, which sometimes may or may not work. But to update the rules, to tell the American people, you’ve elected us to make this judgment about the digital economy. Here is our judgment. And then agencies have a little more certainty and so would consumers at the end of the day
Ryssdal: Are you counting on that happening?
Pai: You know, I actually am. I am — and perhaps because I grew up in a small town in Kansas — a foolish optimist. But I do think on so many of these issues, obviously, net neutrality is the most salient one. But look at so much of what we’ve done over the last four years: 5G, supply chain security, making sure consumers are protected from robocalls, making sure that those with disabilities have access to technology, tribal broadband. I mean, I’m hard-pressed to think of any of these issues that know partisan affiliation. And I have to think that it provides an excellent opportunity for Democrats and Republicans, in an otherwise dismal time, to come together and say, “We delivered value for the American people.” That would be a great way for our elected officials to show a sign of unity at the start of the administration.
Ryssdal: Speaking of dismal times, I hate to end on a downer, but I kind of have to because it’s in the air. Not long before you and I spoke in 2018, it became known publicly that you had received death threats for your stance on net neutrality. You had to cancel public appearances.
And then, when you consider that in the light of the events of Jan. 6 in Washington, and the role that social media and communications played in that, and the threats of violence against our elected representatives, I guess I just want to close with your thoughts on that.
Pai: I will say that, notwithstanding the fact that I am very optimistic about the future of our country, and that I love our country very much, and that I believe that the overwhelming majority of our country believes in civility and peaceful discourse. There have been many distressing events over the last four years that might shake the faith of those like me. And, of course, it affected me personally. In fact, just last night, I got another one. This morning, a separate one was being investigated. And, you know, these are things that unfortunately go now with the territory for people like me or those in elected office.
That’s not how it should be. I have friends who are Democrats and Republicans, and it doesn’t ever occur to me to base my friendship on whether they agree with me politically. And I think we’ve come to a point where, perhaps aided by social media, there’s not just the physical distance from those who make decisions, but also a sense that coarser or harsher discourse is the appropriate way to make your point. And that is a dangerous road. Civil society is much more fragile than I think Americans appreciate. And I do hope that in a time to come we will not see things of the type that happened to me and certainly not things that happened last week on Capitol Hill, which I found disgusting.
And to those of us who believe in American democracy, one important facet of which is the peaceful transition of power, to see armed guards defending the legislative chambers, to see Confederate flags being flown in the seat of the United States government, to see gleeful vandalism of important and significant federal property. Those are not things that speak to the America I know. And it’s not the America I want to see. So here too, I hope and plead with those in good faith to come together and reject this type of tribalism. Where it ends is not in a good place for those of us who believe in America.
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