Game Changer

Ajit Pai Is Regulating You Right Now

The FCC chairman wants you to know that you’ll still be able to read this online once net neutrality is no more.

Illustration: Sam Kerr for Bloomberg Businessweek

Ajit Pai has chutzpah. Even as he was gutting net neutrality regulations in December, he didn’t hide from the internet. The Federal Communications Commission chairman appeared in a silly YouTube video Instagramming junk food and wearing a Santa suit, a demonstration of things you’d still be able to do online “after these Obama-era regulations are repealed.”

The decision to end net neutrality has to withstand a court challenge, and Democrats in Congress will do their utmost to overturn it. Regardless of the outcome, the fight marks Pai as a brawler in bureaucrat’s guise. Says Kevin Werbach, a former FCC staffer who teaches at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School: “He’s going through, pretty systematically, to reverse rules put in place during the Obama administration.” Pai took a measured tone in an interview with Bloomberg Businessweek, saying he’s “simply trying to match our regulations to the realities of the modern marketplace.” But at the Conservative Political Action Conference last week, he was more confrontational. “I don’t play small ball,” he told an audience.

Pai grew up in Parsons, Kan., the son of Indian immigrants who were both doctors. He went to college at Harvard, followed by law school at the University of Chicago. It didn’t take him long to land in Washington, where he worked for the Department of Justice antitrust division, as a lawyer for Verizon Communications Inc., and as a congressional staffer before Obama appointed him to the FCC in 2012. President Trump chose him to lead the agency in January 2017. “It’s really a testament to America,” Pai says. “Anyone can come here and achieve just about anything.”

As chairman, he’s loosened restrictions on the number of stations one broadcaster can own (a move that’s triggered an inspector general review into possible favoritism toward Sinclair Broadcasting Group Inc., which has been scooping up stations since the ruling) and stopped an FCC probe into whether mobile carriers can exempt their own video and music from customers’ data limits. Critics say the plans could let mobile providers favor their own content—Pai counters that such freebies are popular with consumers, so why stand in the way?

His antiregulatory legacy isn’t assured, says Werbach, the FCC watcher. But Pai has been in D.C. long enough to know what he’s up against. “Wisdom certainly doesn’t reside in Washington,” he says.

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