The firestorm surrounding the FCC’s recent reversal of the Obama-era net neutrality rules focused largely on one man: FCC Chairman Ajit Pai. The political discussion had little debate but sparked a massive amount of personal attacks on Pai and his family.
Overall, the backlash against a two-year-old internet regulation — and the man who became the face of repealing it — devolved into an all-out character assassination. Ignoring murderers and child molesters, Pai was dubbed by many as the “most hated person on the internet,” and the anti-Trump “Resistance” movement followed suit by harassing the FCC chairman’s wife and two young children because of an intent to alter bureaucratic regulations?
In the Trump era more than most, we’ve seen opponents routinely turn political issues into a larger existential threat. From healthcare reform to taxes to the Paris climate accords, and now net neutrality, opponents of the president frame the issue as one of survival, turning political debates into scorched-earth-style campaigns.
What is net neutrality?
In its simplest form, it’s the idea that internet service providers (ISPs) — companies like Comcast, Verizon and dozens of others — must treat all online traffic the same.
In short, ISPs can’t block access to sites they don’t want you to visit or slow down traffic to sites that fail to meet their arbitrary criteria without falling foul of the FCC and potentially being hit with a fine (although many providers have contractual provisions allowing them to throttle a customer’s data usage once stated limits are surpassed).
To a large degree, the battle was between massive corporations like Netflix, which uses a massive amount of data to stream movies, versus substantially less popular companies, like the cable industry. At the heart, though, was an issue of “fairness”, with customers worried that smaller or politically unpopular websites would be harmed.
Opponents of net neutrality said the setup would discourage investments in the broadband infrastructure and said it reduced that spending by 5.6 percent, a $3.6 billion cut.
‘Resistance’ movement targets Pai with threats, abuse, and an all-out attack on his character and well being
Although partisans on both sides of the aisle have spoken in favor of preventing ISPs from interfering with their customers’ internet access, many of the most vocal proponents of net neutrality have sought to frame the debate as an instance of President Trump and his supposed white-collar cronies — Pai was formerly an in-house attorney for Verizon — making it easier for large companies to institute shady practices at the expense of consumers.
Hollywood was quick to jump on the bandwagon as well. The British satirist John Oliver, host of HBO’s “Last Week Tonight,” began his own campaign titled Go FCC Yourself that he used to encourage viewers to petition the commission to maintain net neutrality. While the comedian has been credited with drumming up hundreds of thousands of pro-neutrality comments from his fans, he was also forced to denounce the posts made by some proponents of the issue that focused on violence and slander instead of technical or ideological points.
“I support anal fisting of Ajit Pai, the money whoring of this corporate elite for the sole idea of making the rich richer by selling our and his freedom away,” Tennessee-based Nolan Anderson submitted to the FCC’s official comment docket. “This fucking joke of a human being smugly sips from his novelty mug full of Verizon semen and spits it on the one outlet where everyone has an outlet to be themselves.
Other commenters referred to the New York-born commissioner as a “dirty, sneaky Indian” who should go back to his home country, as well as a pedophile — the first of which conveniently overlooks his lifelong U.S. citizenship, and the second of which is potentially libelous, since Pai has never been investigated for pedophilia.
The hate didn’t stop there. One submitter who claimed to be from Illinois but used an obviously false name even casually joked about killing Pai.
“Please keep net neutrality. Verizon, Comcast and other douchebags will fight this… but keep in mind: We all have the power to murder Ajit Pai and his family. Jk Jk [just kidding]. But for real, we do. Anyways, just keep it neutral because it’s the right thing to do, and because Ajit Pai is a giant cunt,” he wrote.
The threat of violence spilled over into the real world, as protesters staked out positions in Pai’s Arlington, Va., neighborhood. Not content with airing their feelings online, newly-minted neutrality fanatics also began harassing his family at their home.
“Is this really the world you want Annabelle and Alexander to inherit,” read a sign on a lamppost outside Pai’s house in November, naming his two children. “They will come to know the truth: Dad murdered democracy in cold blood,” another read.
Numerous videos posted on YouTube displayed Pai alongside Nazi imagery, as well as Reddit, where the anti-Pai attacks frequently topped the site.
The FCC chairman described such intrusions to The Wall Street Journal last year as “not pleasant” — largely an understatement, given that his complaints included strangers congregating in his driveway and taking pictures of the family home through its front windows.
The activists, sometimes calling themselves “Ajit-ators,” have also been accused of passing out handbills to neighbors and sending troves of unwanted deliveries to the Pais’ house, disrupting the family’s days and wreaking havoc on the businesses who must write down perishable items as a loss or process vast amounts of returns.
But as the December deadline for the commission’s formal vote on the neutrality repeal drew closer, the threats intensified. Discussion was reportedly halted in order for at least one of the FCC’s meeting rooms to be cleared due to a bomb threat, thought at the time to be credible. This year, Pai was already forced to withdraw from the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas due to bomb threats.
There’s a lot of hysteria — but how will the Internet change?
All this abuse is built on a fear of future consequences, which still remain uncertain. Former FCC chief economist Michelle Connolly, now an economics professor at Duke University, cautioned in the days following the commission’s decision that despite the public handwringing about the changes, “I don’t think that the average consumer saw the internet looking obviously different from what it was three years ago, and they’re not going to see anything looking obviously different now from what it was six months ago.”
“The whole terming of ‘net neutrality’ is really a marketing campaign, and it wasn’t about keeping things fair,” Connolly added in the interview with Duke Magazine. “It was essentially subsidizing very large content providers that were causing congestion and problems in terms of the amount of data they put through…This wasn’t about keeping things open; this was about preventing natural market mechanisms from occurring.”
Likening internet bandwidth usage to postal deliveries, the former chief economist also pointed out that no one would expect a priority mail shipment to cost the same as a non-express package and encouraged those involved in the net neutrality brouhaha to apply the same principles to intangible services like internet access.
It’s not just an issue of speed but also one of volume. Under the Obama-era net neutrality regulation, an ISP was effectively forced to charge the same price for internet provision regardless of use — in short, whether you check your social media feeds on a laptop a couple of times or day or stream movies while playing online video games on multiple devices, users will get hit with the same bill at the end of the month.
Other observers have posited that technological advancements may make the neutrality debate a moot point in the not-too-distant future.
“At some point, the problem may just solve itself,” Chris Schultz, a veteran litigator in technology cases and general counsel at the Texas-based Level 2 Legal Solutions, told LaCorte News.
For Schultz, who is not currently involved in litigation surrounding the net neutrality debate, the solution is as likely to be technical as it is political. Just as data-storage costs were much higher in the recent past, limiting what companies and other entities could efficiently archive, leaps in technology could free up enough bandwidth to make congestion virtually a thing of the past, he added.
Until then, “the terms of service and end-user agreements — those binding documents are what will control customer access,” just as they currently do, Schultz noted. He also urged customers who are concerned about the impact of the FCC’s regulatory changes to thoroughly read their contracts so they know what to expect from their ISPs.
“I think that, in many ways, the current environment is on the wrong side of history,” Schultz added. “Reasonable minds will prevail.”
There are no fixed dates by which ISPs must make changes, and some have already publicly stated that they intend to continue business as usual. The chairman and CEO of AT&T, Randall Stephenson, last week called on Congress to put forward a “bill of rights” for the internet while emphasizing that for the past decade, the company has provided unrestricted access for its customers.
“AT&T is committed to an open internet. We don’t block websites. We don’t censor online content. And we don’t throttle, discriminate or degrade network performance based on content. Period,” Stephenson wrote, adding that the telecom giant plans to coordinate with rival ISPs, consumer groups, and politicians this year to develop sustainable rules for internet governance.
Yet for now, the issue remains unsettled, in part because of the speed at which technology is evolving but also due to the lack of serious debate amidst the smears and threats.
Lauren Bedsole is a veteran TV, multimedia and film producer with experience working throughout the world, including election coverage in Russia, energy negotiations in Saudi Arabia, discussions at the World Economic Forum and as part of the White House travel pool. She also has helped launch three media companies. A graduate of Duke University with bachelor’s degrees in political science and public policy, she additionally holds a graduate diploma in English law from BPP and an MA in journalism from London’s City University. She currently lives in Houston.