President Trump on Monday designated Ajit Pai, a Republican member of the Federal Communications Commission and an outspoken opponent of new net neutrality rules, to be the agency’s new chairman.
Pai, 44, would take over for Tom Wheeler, a Democrat who stepped down on Friday. Wheeler’s term had not expired but Trump gets to designate a new chairman as Republicans gain the FCC majority.
“I look forward to working with the new administration, my colleagues at the commission, members of Congress, and the American public to bring the benefits of the digital age to all Americans,” Pai said.
A telecommunications lawyer who has served on the FCC since May 2012, Pai is a free-market advocate who has been sharply critical of new regulations adopted by Democrats in recent years.
He takes the chairman’s office amid reports that Trump’s advisors want to scale back the FCC’s authority.
“We need to fire up the weed whacker and remove those rules that are holding back investment, innovation and job creation,” Pai said in a speech last month looking ahead to Republican control of the FCC.
Pai, whose parents immigrated to the U.S. from India, was associate general counsel of Verizon Communications Inc. from 2001-03 before working as a staffer at the U.S. Senate, the Justice Department and the FCC.
He sprinkles his speeches with pop-culture references and is adept at social media. During the net neutrality debate, he tweeted a photo of himself with the 332-page proposal and lamented that FCC rules didn’t allow him to make it public. Pai has pushed for FCC proposals to be released before commissioners vote on them.
Andrew Jay Schwartzman, a Georgetown University law professor and longtime consumer advocate, said Pai would be a “formidable opponent” for public interest groups.
“He is not only an outspoken detractor from many of the important advances we obtained under Chairman Wheeler, but he is also extremely smart and knowledgeable,” Schwartzman said.
Chief among Pai’s targets will be the net neutrality online traffic rules the FCC adopted on a partisan 3-2 vote in 2015.
The regulations are designed to ensure the free flow of online data by barring Internet service providers from discriminating against legal content flowing through their networks. To do that, the FCC imposed utility-like oversight of broadband providers.
Former President Obama, his fellow Democrats and consumer activists pushed for the tough regulations. But the move was strongly opposed by Pai and the FCC’s other Republican, Michael O’Rielly, as well as GOP lawmakers and broadband providers.
Trump also spoke out against the rules, tweeting in November 2014, “Obama’s attack on the Internet is another top-down power grab.”
A federal appeals court upheld the rules last year after a legal challenge from AT&T Inc., other telecom companies and industry trade groups. But in a Dec. 7 speech to the Free State Foundation, a free-market think tank, Pai said he was “more confident than ever” that the “days are numbered” for the net neutrality regulations.
Craig Aaron, president of Free Press, a digital rights group, said Pai “looks out for the corporate interests he used to represent in the private sector.”
“Millions of Americans from across the political spectrum have looked to the FCC to protect their rights to connect and communicate and cheered decisions like the historic net neutrality ruling, and Pai threatens to undo all of that important work,” Aaron said. “Those millions will rise up again to oppose his reactionary agenda.”
Removing the net neutrality regulations could take a while as the FCC probably would have to go through a formal rule-making process.
“We made a decision on the record. The court supported that decision rather convincingly,” Wheeler said in an interview this week. “I think it’s going to be difficult to just waltz in and say, ‘We’re going to overturn everything.’”
Trump met with Pai at Trump Tower last week, fueling speculation that the new president would choose him to lead the agency.
The five-member commission has two vacancies after the departures of Wheeler and Democrat Jessica Rosenworcel.