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‘The Most Hated Man on the Internet’ Ajit Pai to Step Down as Federal Communications Commission Chairman

‘The Most Hated Man on the Internet’ Ajit Pai to Step Down as Federal Communications Commission Chairman

  • Marked by the ending of Net Neutrality and telecom deregulation, his tenure has been both controversial and consequential.

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Varadaraj Pai today announced his plans to step down from his position when President-elect Joe Biden is inaugurated on January 20, 2021.

The decision to step down marks the end to a four-year stint atop the nation’s telecom agency that had been marked with contentious fights over an ambitious deregulatory agenda. This – largely expected departure — is set to unleash a wave of uncertainty at the FCC as the new Biden-Harris administration takes shape.

“It has been the honor of a lifetime to serve at the Federal Communications Commission, including as chairman of the FCC over the past four years,” Pai said in a press statement. “To be the first Asian American to chair the FCC has been a particular privilege. As I often say: only in America.”

Thanking Pai for his service to community and country, Raghu Devaguptapu, a prominent Democratic strategist, ad-maker and founding partner of the ad agency Left Hook told American Kahani, “Anytime someone gets elected or appointed, it comes with a sacrifice – a lifestyle sacrifice, whether it’s moving one’s family, leaving far more lucrative private sector work, or simply opening yourself up to the criticism and scrutiny that comes with the job.  So, those who choose to serve should be commended for it.”

In social media and on various websites, identified as “the most hated man on the internet,” Pai served as FCC chairman for the duration of the Trump administration, overseeing an unusually active period in federal telecom policy. A Republican tapped by President Trump in 2017 to be chairman after serving as a commissioner, led a deregulatory charge in the telecom sector.

He began the term with the controversial decision to roll back Title II classification and sought to loosen restrictions on broadcast station group ownership, undoing the net neutrality rules put in place under President Obama. More recently, he oversaw the merger of T-Mobile and Sprint, which he called “a unique opportunity to speed up the deployment of 5G throughout the United States.” 

Pai also implemented new measures to fight robo-calls and established a new three-digit code, 988, for a national suicide prevention hotline. Touting his work to streamline the agency’s operations and regulations, which he described as the “most transparent FCC in history,” Pai told the Washington Post, “As a result, our nation’s communications networks are now faster, stronger, and more widely deployed than ever before.”

A former Verizon attorney, Pai has been decried by detractors as a corporate plant strategically positioned in the nation’s capital. But, it was his dismantling of the Obama administration’s net neutrality policy that has perhaps drawn the most open hostility of all. 

Critics said that the FCC’s repeal of Obama-era net neutrality regulations, which were intended to keep the web open and fair, would destroy the internet as people know it. Net neutrality proponents however argued that the rules under the 2015 Open Internet Order were crucial in keeping providers such as Cablevision, Comcast and Verizon from having too much control as internet gatekeepers. Pai’s decision to dismantle neutrality raised concerns and fears that these companies would have the power to block websites, throttle services and censor online content. Many also said that the dismantling of net neutrality would effectively gut poor people’s access to the internet.

Ruining the Internet

Charging him with “ruining the internet,” protesters had even threatened Pai, his wife and children, covered his house with disparaging signs and taken to the internet with accusations and calls for his removal, according to media reports by India Abroad.

Protesters had even established, a website that encouraged visitors to contact the FCC about Pai’s actions. The site also explained how, without net neutrality, ISPs such as AT&T, Time Warner Cable and Verizon can block or dramatically slow users’ access to some sites.

The ascension of Pai, 44, the son of Indian immigrants, had also divided the Indian American community into camps — Pai detractors and boosters.

Indian American lawmakers on Capitol Hill had also mounted a challenge against him. Pai came under a blistering attack from several Indian American lawmakers on Capitol Hill — all Democrats — led by California Rep. Ro Khanna, whose district includes Silicon Valley. There was also a Twitter feud between Pai and Khanna, who had taken to the House floor to condemn Pai for rolling back a program that would provide internet access to low-income Americans. 

“We need stronger net neutrality laws that ban most forms of zero rating instead of weakening these laws,” Khanna had tweeted in November 2017. He accused the FCC of pandering to major corporations, giving “even more control over the media, paving the way for megamergers. The controversial proposal triggered a war of words between Pai and Khanna who was joined by then California Sen. And now Vice-President Elect, Kamala Devi Harris and Rep. Pramila Jayapal of Washington.

Not Indian Enough?

While many criticized his policies, some like comedian Hari Kondabolu took aim instead at Pai’s Indianness, questioning it.

“Ajit Pai is the type of Indian guy who eats dosa with a fork,” Kondabolu tweeted. Kondabolu later doubled down on his criticism. “Dear @AjitPaiFCC, I apologize for my tweets questioning your “Brown-ness,” he tweeted. “You are not a disappointment to Indian Americans…but to all Americans. You can eat a pakora while destroying #NetNeutrality. You can wear a kurta while catering to corporate interests. #AjitPaiSucks.”

The wave of anti-Pai sentiment in the media can be traced back to comedian John Oliver, who made net neutrality a personal cause. Last year, he singled out Pai on his HBO show “Last Week Tonight.”

“The dangerous thing about Pai is that he presents himself as a fun, down-to-earth nerd,” Oliver said, before embarking on a virtual dressing-down of Pai that mocked everything from his love of the movie “The Big Lebowski” to his giant coffee mug, to his interpretation of infrastructure investment.

But there were those who supported Pai and condemned attacks against his family and his race, regardless of their politics.

In the wake of the net-neutrality storm, Pai had tried to reason with his critics, first by explaining that the Obama administration rules have “depressed investment in building and expanding broadband networks and deterred innovation.”

According to a report in India Abroad, Pai even took to the internet, the very medium he is accused of sabotaging. The night before the net-neutrality vote in December 2017, he donned a Santa suit, and with a fidget spinner in one hand and a lightsaber in another, and in a video billed as a public-service announcement, assured Christmas shoppers the internet was still open for business. Later in the same sequence, he assured millennials they could still “gram their food” and “post photos of cute animals” when net neutrality is scrapped.

The wave of anti-Pai sentiment in the media can be traced back to comedian John Oliver, who made net neutrality a personal cause. Last year, he singled out Pai on his HBO show “Last Week Tonight.”

The controversial video appeared on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, although a sequence featuring Pai’s gyrating dance number to the “Harlem Shake” angered the producer of the copyrighted music. The producer, a DJ known as Baauer, called for its removal adding that he did not agree with Pai’s policies either.

Pai had made an earlier appeal to America’s youth in a video for conservative news site IJ Review in May: He read aloud the meanest tweets about his proposals, a response to criticism lobbed his way by TV’s John Oliver. Many of the tweets were clearly racial assaults: “Ajit Pai: Go back to Africa — w[h]ere you came from”, and “Do you even English, bro?”

Although many prominent members of the Indian American community share the vocal opposition over Pai and his policies, they find the level of hatred — and its tone — to be distressing. “I have been dismayed by all the brown shaming that Ajit has been subjected to,” a Washington, D.C.-based media consultant and political strategist who did not wish to be identified, had told India Abroad.

See Also

Several other people had also told India Abroad their sentiments were the same. Condemning the personal attacks on Pai, they had said that they did not want to be identified because of their professional affiliations with the FCC.

But many had stressed that carrying out a policy that might not be favored within his community does not make Pai less of an Indian.

Amidst the detractors, some members of the Indian American community had rushed to Pai’s defense, among them Indiaspora member and leader, Shekar Narasimhan, a top Democratic strategist. Slamming anyone who had criticized Pai over his race and religion, a statement on Indiaspora’s website read during the net-neutrality uproar, “Irrespective of your political leanings, behavior and threats against individuals for their actions are unacceptable. We should have zero tolerance for hate and xenophobia whether it’s directed from the left or right. It’s un-American and against all the tenets of our great religions.”

Speaking to India Abroad, Dino Teppara, a prominent Republican attorney who has known Pai for 15 years,said that all the negativity towards Pai was a knee-jerk reaction to President Donald Trump and his policies. “The problem is with the people,” Teppara had said. “He [Pai] is clearly doing his job, and he’s good at it.”

Indian American progressives like Deepa Iyer, founder of South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT), and a Senior Fellow at the Center for Social Inclusion did not see the issue from the Indiaspora lens nor support the racist attacks against Pai.   Iyer had said his decision to dismantle net neutrality was “completely misguided and complete and dishonest” and reflective of “the white supremacist administration he works for.” 

Joining Iyer in the criticism was Shikha Bhatnagar of the South Asian Network who told India Abroad that Indiaspora was “only interested in perpetuating the model minority myth and highlighting affluence and success in the Indian-American community.”

The son of Konkani immigrants from India was born in Buffalo, New York and grew up in rural Parsons, Kansas, where both of his parents were doctors at the county hospital. Pai holds a bachelor’s degree from Harvard and a J.D. from the University of Chicago, where he was an editor of the University of Chicago Law Review.

In a speech at the U.S.-India Business Council in March 2017, Pai had described his family’s journey as the “American Dream manifest,” telling the gathering that his parents came to the U.S. in 1971, with just a radio and $10 in their pockets.

“Like so many immigrants, they sacrificed to give me opportunities not available to them as children…Forty-six years after my parents’ journey from India, here I am, the grandson of a spare auto parts salesman and a file clerk, tapped by the president of the United States to be the nation’s chief communications regulator.”

Pai’s law career includes assignments mostly with the U.S. judicial services and Congress in different capacities as well as stints with private corporations. He was also a congressional aide to Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

Pai’s Inauguration Day departure is in keeping with agency tradition, and could set up the Biden administration with a 2-1 Democratic majority at the FCC, if the Senate fails to confirm another Trump nominee during the lame-duck period.

Anu Ghosh immigrated to the U.S. from India in 1999. Back in India she was a journalist for the Times of India in Pune for 8 years and a graduate from the Symbiosis Institute of Journalism and Communication. In the U.S., she obtained her Masters and PhD. in Communications from The Ohio State University. Go Buckeyes! She has been involved in education for the last 15 years, as a professor at Oglethorpe University and then Georgia State University. She currently teaches Special Education at Oak Grove Elementary. She is also a mom to two precocious girls ages 11 and 6.

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