WASHINGTON – On the eve of a historic vote at the Federal Communications Commission, Chairman Ajit Pai starred in an eccentric video that featured him dressed as Santa, wielding a lightsaber and clutching a fidget spinner to defend his contentious move to repeal net neutrality and mock the criticism against it.
In a so-called public service announcement laced with pop culture references and internet iconography, Pai listed the “7 things you can still do on the internet after net neutrality.” He moved through each sarcasm-soaked segment with props and costumes. In the first scene, “You can still gram your food,” Pai took a selfie with a bowl topped with Cheetos and drenched in sriracha. Later, dressed in a Santa suit and holding a rotating fidget spinner, he demonstrated how people could still shop for their Christmas presents online. In another bit, titled “You can still stay part of your fave fandom,” Pai, in a fitted black hoodie, cocked his shoulders back and raised his elbows as he brandished a blue lightsaber. To bring it all home, the last segment, “You can still ruin memes,” was its own version of a Harlem Shake video; Pai gyrated to music along with four other people.
Pai’s video came just a day before the commission voted in a 3-2 party-line vote to repeal net neutrality rules set in 2015. Under Pai’s new plan, internet providers would be allowed to speed up service for some apps and websites and block or slow others.
Published by conservative news site the Daily Caller and pushed on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, the video speaks to Pai’s quirky sense of humor and his belief that the internet and the public’s relationship to it won’t be harmed after net neutrality rules are dismantled.
“Quite simply, we are restoring the light-touch framework that has governed the internet for most of its existence,” he said in comments leading up to the FCC vote Thursday.
The absurdist video seized on the widespread outcry against Pai’s moves, portraying the concerns of many consumers, technology companies and civil society groups as doomsday hysteria. But Pai’s critics, including two of his fellow commissioners, see the repeal as an affront to free expression and a vibrant internet marketplace. FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel described the process leading up to the vote as “corrupt,” adding, “I dissent from the contempt this agency has shown our citizens in pursuing this path today.”
Pai has not shied away from controversy. Since President Donald Trump elevated him to lead the commission earlier this year, he’s moved swiftly to deregulate internet service providers and squash rules designed to limit the reach and power of broadcasting companies, which experts say may lead to greater consolidation.
Pai was first appointed to the FCC by President Obama in 2011. Before that, he was a partner at the law firm Jenner & Block and held several positions as a staffer at the FCC, including deputy general counsel. In the early 2000s, he worked as a senior counsel at the Department of Justice, deputy chief counsel for the Senate Judiciary Committee, and was a lawyer for Verizon. Pai’s parents immigrated from India. He was raised in Kansas.
Pai’s tongue-in-cheek video stands in stark contrast to the often testy give-and-take that has surrounded much of the net neutrality debate. In recent weeks, as a vote approached, Pai and his family even became targets of harassment. In one incident, cardboard signs naming his two children were left outside of his home in Arlington, Virginia. “They will come to know the truth. Dad murdered Democracy in cold blood,” one sign read. A spokesperson for the FCC said that Pai’s family has received many threats, and that his wife has been receiving harassing emails at work.
The tone of the video should not have come as a surprise. People who know Pai describe him as an ebullient presence, given to occasional cornball humor. As a policymaker, he has consistently championed the same views he held when Democrats controlled the commission, in the pre-Trump era.
“People have known what is coming and what he cares about by watching what he cared about as a minority commissioner, when he had little power to direct the agency,” said Joshua Wright, a law professor at George Mason University and a former commissioner at the Federal Trade Commission.
Like Pai, Wright was appointed by Obama to hold a post reserved for the GOP, and the two became friends inside Democratically controlled agencies. Wright described Pai as generous and principled, and a person willing to engage with his critics. Whether people are upset by Pai’s actions as chairman or are drawn to him because of it, his effectiveness can’t be denied, he said. “I can’t think of a more effective regulatory commissioner than Ajit Pai.”
Others say Pai’s pleasant demeanor can mask destructive policy views. “His general friendliness can sometimes cover up an agenda that harms consumers,” said Chris Lewis, the vice president of Public Knowledge, a consumer advocacy group. Lewis said that he doesn’t know Pai well, but he would occasionally exchange greetings with him in the hallways of the FCC, when they were both staffers.
“He’s the type of guy you’d want to sit down and have a beer with, but not the type you’d want to run the Federal Communications Commission,” he said.