Trump's FCC head gets another term after outcry

Reddit co-founder defends net neutrality
Reddit co-founder defends net neutrality

In just nine months, Ajit Pai has ignited firestorms over net neutrality, broadband privacy and media mergers.

Now the Federal Communications Commission chairman is about to extend his tenure on the job.

The Senate voted largely along party lines Monday to confirm Pai to another five-year term at the FCC. Pai, formerly a Republican commissioner at the FCC, was appointed to run the agency in January by President Trump. His term was set to expire this year.

"I am deeply grateful to the U.S. Senate for confirming my nomination to serve a second term at the FCC and to President Trump for submitting that nomination to the Senate," Pai said in a statement after the vote.

Pai's confirmation faced strong opposition from Senate Democrats, advocacy groups and some former FCC officials. One recent petition calling for the Senate to fire Pai, promoted by Free Press, received "tens of thousands" of signatures, according to Timothy Karr, the group's senior director of strategy.

"Chairman Pai has worked at breakneck speed to transform the FCC from an agency that works in the public interest to a big business support group," Sen. Elizabeth Warren said on the Senate floor Monday.

In the statement, Pai said the FCC has been "focused on bridging the digital divide, promoting innovation, protecting consumers and public safety, and making the FCC more open and transparent."

The outcry over Pai's reconfirmation is both a criticism of, and a testament to, Pai's impact on the job so far. Other regulatory agencies like the Federal Trade Commission still await permanent leadership under Trump.

"What really sets Pai apart from other Trump appointees is he really knows what he's doing. He's both an expert on substance and process," says Gigi Sohn, a counselor to former FCC chairman Tom Wheeler.

Sohn has also called for Pai to be fired over his efforts to dismantle consumer protections put in place by the previous administration.

"He's been far too effective for my taste," he says.

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Pai's most high-profile effort to date has been moving forward with a proposal to roll back net neutrality protections. The rules were put in place by the FCC during the Obama administration to prevent Internet providers from deliberately speeding up or slowing down traffic from specific websites and apps.

Pai, a former lawyer for Verizon, had been a longtime critic of the rules. The proposed rollback prompted protests online and offline from net neutrality advocates, including Facebook (FB), Google (GOOGL), Netflix (NFLX) and Amazon (AMZN).

Pai also applauded Trump and Congress for repealing FCC Internet privacy protections that would have given consumers an extra safeguard online, a move that set off a similar public outcry.

Michelle Connolly, a former FCC official who supports Pai, says the added attention and heated debates around these issues are the result of the ubiquity of tech in our lives.

"Everyone uses the internet and everyone uses these tech platforms and everyone is personally concerned about privacy and hacking," she says. "So issues that are coming up right now, people are seeing from a very personal perspective."

The outrage extends beyond tech issues. On the eve of the renomination, nearly two dozen Senate Democrats sent a letter to Pai expressing "grave concerns" with his move to upend the media landscape.

Earlier this year, the FCC voted to reinstate the "UHF discount," which allows broadcasters to understate the reach of their stations. Opponents argued the move would pave the way for greater consolidation of broadcasters. Shortly after, Sinclair Broadcast Group announced plans to acquire Tribune Media in a deal that would push the total TV stations it owns above 200 nationwide.

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"Moves to repeal the media ownership rules threatens to create a world of corporatized, nationalized content being force fed to consumers under the guise of local news and public affairs programming," the senators wrote. "This is not the broadcast media that Americans deserve."

Pai touts himself as an outspoken First Amendment defender, but nonetheless raised alarms earlier in his term as chairman about his views on the media.

In a March hearing, Pai was grilled by two senators about Trump's claim that the media is the "enemy of the people." Rather than condemn the remarks outright, Pai said: "I don't want to wade into the larger political debates."

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