If New FCC Boss Ajit Pai Is So 'Pro Consumer,' Why Does The Telecom Industry Need To Pay People To Say So?

On his first day new FCC Boss Ajit Pai repeatedly and breathlessly insisted that consumers and the digital divide would be his top priority. The problem: that dedication was directly contradicted by not only Pai’s past voting record at the agency, but his first actions as agency head. Out of the gate Pai undermined an FCC legal case against prison phone telecom monopolies, scrapped an FCC plan to bring competition to the cable box, killed all ongoing zero rating inquiries and began laying the ground work for killing net neutrality, and prevented nine already-approved ISPs from helping the poor via the agency’s Lifeline program.

Unsurprisingly, it didn’t take particularly long for some news outlets to realize that Pai’s words weren’t supported by his actions. Both The Washington Post and the New York Times penned editorials blasting Pai, most notably for his ongoing disdain for net neutrality, which has broad, bipartisan support.

Driven to defend Pai’s selection as FCC boss for obvious reasons, ISPs got right to work fighting back via their traditional weapon of choice: bullshitters for hire. Shortly after the Post and Times pieces surfaced, contrasting op-eds quickly popped up in newspapers and websites nationwide claiming Pai is actually an incredible boon to consumers, competition and innovation. Most of these op-eds failed to adequately disclose the authors’ financial ties to large broadband providers, or the fact they take money while pretending to be objective analysts — often including Congressional testimony.

Fred Campbell, a long-standing ISP-funded “consultant,” penned a piece over at Forbes blasting the Post and Times for “doublespeak,” while insisting that Pai is secretly a hero of the people:

“Doublespeak is language that disguises or even reverses the meaning of words in order to disguise the nature of the truth. A flurry of attacks on Ajit Pai, the new chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, are full of it. It’s clear that Pai is serious about closing the digital divide between those who use cutting-edge communications services and those who do not.”

Ah the post-truth era, when those that spend the most time practicing doublespeak endlessly whine about doublespeak.

Look, if you actually talk to any genuine consumer advocate in the telecom space (they’re easy to spot: they’re the ones with limited budgets and shittier suits), they’ll quickly tell you that while Pai is a nice guy — he’s a water carrier for industry, rarely if ever challenging their positions on any issue of consumer note. You only need look at his voting record, and the numerous times he not only voted down indisputably pro-consumer initiatives like net neutrality, but refused to hold companies like AT&T accountable for outright fraud — even when that fraud involved the Lifeline program Pai professes to now adore.

Campbell’s editorial was one of numerous, similar missives. Rick Boucher, one-time respected Congressional fair use champion, now works at Sidley Austin, a law firm that effectively acts as an AT&T policy arm. That direct financial tie isn’t really made clear in an op-ed over at Light Reading, where Boucher informs readers that, despite his nonexistent track record on the subject, Pai will somehow be a champion of expanded broadband coverage:

“Chairman Pai recently announced the formation of the Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee, a task force that will offer “specific” recommendations to speed broadband deployment and, in his words, “close the digital divide.”

Pai’s action is an excellent first step towards accelerating broadband deployment (and adoption) throughout the country. Getting great minds together to hack a solution is both wise and urgent. And perhaps most important, it’s a sign that fact-based decision-making is now the order of the day at the FCC.”

But forming a committee to talk about the digital divide isn’t an actual solution to anything — especially expanded broadband coverage. And it certainly doesn’t magically obliterate Pai’s anti-consumer, and anti-startup voting record. If there’s an FCC plan to actually shore up competition or bring broadband to the under-served (like the FCC’s recent vote to ensure low-income users can use their $9.25 monthly Lifeline credit for broadband), you can be fairly certain Pai voted against it. It’s not really something that’s open to debate. Well, unless you’re the type that’s paid to pretend that generally-accepted facts are up for debate.

It’s important to understand that broadband providers and politicians adore slathering meaningless platitudes upon the “digital divide” because it earns them cheap political brownie points without having to do much of anything. In fact that’s Comcast’s entire lobbying MO, and the primary reason they renamed their top lobbyist the company’s “Chief Diversity Officer.” It’s a simple schtick: distract the public by professing your support for closing the digital divide with the bare minimum of effort, while denying the singular problem that causes broadband coverage caps and high prices in the first place: a lack of competition.

Over at The Hill, the National Grange, one of countless organizations telecom providers pay to support megamergers and other unpopular policy, also ignores Pai’s clear and obvious history, claiming he’ll be an incredible boon for rural communities. Over at the telecom-industry funded Heartland Institute blog, Scott Cleland, who also takes funds from the sector while pretending to be an objective analyst, crows that Pai will “return a pro-consumer focus” to the FCC:

“Unlike the Federal Communications Commission’s previous head, new FCC Chairman Ajit Pai is putting consumers first, not net neutrality. The sad reality is that the previous FCC did the bidding of the biggest edge providers, both on the issue of net neutrality and opening up the cable box market, as I will explain.”

Up is down, black is white. We’ve long noted how the broadband industry has tried to downplay net neutrality issues by claiming that everything is somehow Netflix’s fault, and incumbent broadband providers are just misunderstood, innocent daisies. Logical cohesion is generally missing from this narrative, but Pai himself has played a starring role in claiming repeatedly that — in stark contrast to all available evidence — it’s the edge (content and service companies not-coincidentally challenging the industry’s TV stranglehold) providers that are the real internet villains.

This disconnect between reality and dollar-per-hollar rhetoric is nothing new, especially in telecom. Former FCC boss Michael Powell, now the cable industry’s top lobbyist, made a career out of paying endless lip service to consumers to the acclaim of industry sockpuppets, while his actions repeatedly worked to undermine oversight of giant companies like Comcast (to obvious end). That’s because the real goal for most of these folks is something you may have ferreted out already: protection of loyal campaign contributor revenues above all else. If anything, there’s an active disdain for the consumer.

If Pai actually were “pro consumer,” his voting record would reflect it with minimal debate. And consumer advocates (the ones that actually spend ten hours a day fighting the good fight to little acclaim or profit) wouldn’t be issuing warnings about “empty rhetoric” and “Orwellian” behavior at the FCC. At the end of the day you have to wonder: if you need to covertly pay people to support your argument, what kind of argument do you actually have?

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Author: Karl Bode

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