Ajit Pai’s Next Move

by Eliana Johnson
The Republican FCC commissioner who revealed a controversial study has more battles to fight.

The Federal Communications Commission has pulled the plug on its controversial “Critical Information Needs” survey that sparked a bipartisan uproar over government oversight of news gathering. 

That’s a major victory for Ajit Pai, one of the agency’s Republican commissioners. The baby-faced 41-year-old attorney rocketed to national attention after he slammed the study in a Wall Street Journal op-ed in mid-February.

His words had their intended effect. After he characterized the study as a government attempt to meddle in news coverage and pressure news organizations into covering certain stories and ignoring others, Fox News gave the matter virtually wall-to-wall coverage. 

The FCC last week threw out the CIN study’s most explosive portion, a plan to question reporters and editors in both broadcast and non-broadcast media about their editorial decisions and work environments, and said it would revise the study. On Friday it went a step further, terminating the study entirely. 

But Pai isn’t calling off the dogs just yet. Now, he’s turning his attention to another issue brewing at the FCC: the agency’s push to adopt net-neutrality rules that would govern how Internet service providers run their networks. 

The FCC is looking to clamp down on Internet providers like Verizon and Time Warner Cable, which want the freedom to manage their networks. That includes the freedom to charge certain providers for speedier access to their customers. The FCC wants to prevent deals like that, argues they give established companies an unfair advantage over their smaller competitors. 

Pai says these rules would curb innovation rather than encourage it, and he is adamant that the agency keeps out of the fight. Like the battle over the CIN study, that pits Pai against FCC commissioner Tom Wheeler, who has made net neutrality a priority of his tenure at the FCC.

“It’s hard to think of any regulated utility in our economy that’s cutting edge,” Pai tells National Review. “The Internet has given everybody a platform for innovation because it has been free from government intervention thus far.” The sort of regulation that the agency is currently contemplating, he says, would be a tremendous insertion of the American regulatory apparatus into the economy.

“Once the FCC gets is nose under the camel’s tent,” he warns, “it’s unclear what’s going to stop it.”

Pai says it was an introductory economics course at Harvard began to shape him into a conservative. The son of Indian immigrants, Pai grew up a Democrat in the city of Parsons, Kansas, population 10,500. The economics course, he says, turned his attention to how people respond to incentives and, in particular, “what incentives the government was placing on to people.”

“It led me to think that the Republican party had it right,” he says.

He was nudged further in the direction of the GOP at the University of Chicago law school, where he studied administrative law with President Obama’s former regulatory czar, Cass Sunstein. 

“Even though I would come down on the opposite side when it came to policy, I really appreciated his way of thinking about regulation,” Pai says of Sunstein. “He would make this point, ‘Look, you have to consider the tradeoffs no matter what the regulation is.’ Same thing with the importance of public input. He took the view then that if you are going to adopt a rule that has broad application there should be a tremendous opportunity for public input.”

Last month, the D.C. Circuit overturned the net neutrality regulations penned by the FCC, which had prevented Internet providers from blocking or slowing access to various websites, but left the door open on the subject by indicating the agency could adopt similar regulations through other legal means. That is what it is working to do now by classifying Internet providers as “common carriers” like telephone companies, which are subject to FCC regulations.  

That move, Pai says, “would be a terrible decision for all Americans.” If Commissioner Wheeler advances the regulations, as he appears likely to do, it is clear he will have a formidable opponent.

— Eliana Johnson is media editor of National Review Online.

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