FCC Chairman Ajit Pai is the bravest man in Washington right now.
Or at least, he’d better be, because his recent decision to end the tech industry’s favorite government program — net neutrality — amounts to staring down the massive barrel of Silicon Valley wrath and daring them to make his day. In the process, Pai has become a singular figure: one of the few bureaucrats in the Trump administration to stand up for Trump voters.
On the face of it, net neutrality isn’t the sort of thing one would expect to be the basis for a fight like this. Indeed, until Pai stepped into the fray, the issue was mostly an inter-industry slap fight between tech giants and internet service providers (ISPs) like Comcast over the arcane issue of whether those ISPs could charge their consumers more to consume various different types of data. Should someone who watches a ton of Netflix face higher prices than someone who merely reads articles, for example? And even if they don’t face higher prices, should their internet service provider be allowed to make that choice, or should they be forced to treat all data as equal by the government? It’s the kind of dry dispute that few people understand, and that was thus ripe for fearmongering.
Unsurprisingly, the tech industry was very good at precisely that tactic, claiming without any apparent sense of irony that what net neutrality really amounted to was the question of whether internet service providers could censor the internet, or whether it would remain free. And, during the Obama years, this line of attack worked because companies like Google, Facebook, Twitter, Netflix, and others adopted a light touch approach to what happened on the internet, period, so their claims to be defenders of free information was very difficult to challenge.
What a difference a few years makes. Now, the very idea that any of the tech giants would offer hands-off access to information would rightfully make everyone from pro-antitrust liberals to conservatives of all stripes laugh in disbelief. To take Google alone as an example, the fact that it moved quicker to censor politically conservative YouTube users than it did to censor pedophiles, or that it treated the mere act of stating that men and women have different psychological needs as a firing offense, or that it locked people out of their emails and private documents for privately writing things that offended the company’s SJW-designed algorithms, has removed all doubt.
And yet, despite this flurry of abuses, and the bipartisan consensus among everyone from Elizabeth Warren to Steve Bannon that it can’t go on, Washington has largely remained paralyzed in the face of tech industry tyranny. In the case of the Left, the cause of this is obvious: big donors get political cover. But in the case of the Right, the only explanation available is ideologically motivated masochism, to the point that a conservative blog like RedState takes great pains to opine on the fact that private companies can do whatever they like, just in case anyone forgot that free market principle is more important to them than the ability of their own voters to voice their opinions without being persecuted or silenced.
But Ajit Pai has broken this paralysis, because the FCC Chairman’s decision to attack net neutrality has clearly become about more than just an arcane question of data prices. It has become a war cry by Chairman Pai himself against the tyranny of cultural cosmopolitans everywhere: a gauntlet thrown down against companies that have thought themselves immune from political repercussions for their own hypocrisy, and now have it staring them in the face.
Since announcing his decision, Chairman Pai has repeatedly brought up the fact that the very people decrying net neutrality as “internet censorship” are themselves censors. And it has not gone over well with them, or their allies. Culturally Left outlets like Slate have fumed that Pai is recycling “alt right talking points.” Loud-mouthed celebrities have tried to tie Chairman Pai to Russia, only to have the attack crushed by the Chairman himself over Twitter. The CEO of Cloudfare has even discussed trying to throttle Pai’s own internet connection in retribution — not surprising, given this is the same man who thinks it’s his prerogative to force people he considers to be “really evil” off the internet, so long as he later mouths hypocritical platitudes about free speech.
None of this shows any signs of fazing Pai himself, and it shouldn’t. He has the tech industry over a barrel, and I suspect he and his staff know it. If those companies are going to fight against regulated utilities like themselves, then they should not be arguing for utility-style regulation of their economic rivals. If those companies are going to claim that internet service providers are censoring the internet, they’re going to have to stop blatantly trying to censor it themselves. If those companies are going to claim they have no liability for what is said or posted using their platforms, then they’d better stop throttling people who post things they don’t like. It’s as simple as that. In making these points, Chairman Pai is the “deplorable” Trump voter’s David lobbing a stone in the face of Goliath.
One only hopes that the rest of Washington piles on the malignant giants as they teeter from the blow.