Ajit Pai is shameless.
Pai, the chairman of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, would have you believe that he believes in government oversight. He want you to believe that he’s a champion of transparency and privacy.
In a post on Medium on Tuesday, Pai took the big tech companies to task. Consumers don’t understand how Google orders its search results or why Twitter bans some people but not others. Google and Facebook are collecting enormous amounts of data on their customers — but those customers have no clue what they’re collecting. Apple and Google appear to be kowtowing to China and censoring the internet for its citizens.
Pai suggested that it was time for the government to impose transparency “obligations” on the tech giants. The companies ought to be disclosing how they operate their services, what they do with customers’ private information, and how they decide which posts or people to block.
“The public deserves to know more about how these companies operate,” Pai said.
Pai’s not wrong, of course. Facebook and Google in particular have enormous control over what sites we visit, what videos we watch, and what news we read. We ought to have more insight into how they operate their services. (It would be great to know that about Twitter too, but its user base is far smaller than that of Facebook and Google and so too is its power and influence.)
But it’s a more than a little hard to believe that Pai actually believes what he’s saying. You see, up until this point, he’s made it very clear that he’s a free-market, laissez-faire, anti-regulatory conservative.
You may remember Pai as the guy who spearheaded the FCC’s effort to repeal net-neutrality rules in the face of widespread opposition, because he thought the rules were too onerous. He’s such a believer in deregulation that he’s questioned whether his agency has the authority to oversee broadband companies at all and abdicated pretty much all oversight over them to the Federal Trade Commission, an agency with both a much broader mandate and much narrower powers.
This, despite the fact that the the FCC was created in large part to regulate telecommunications companies — a classification into which most people would include broadband providers.
Pai’s concern for transparency would be more convincing if he hadn’t — in the process of repealing the FCC’s net neutrality rules — taken a hacksaw to the disclosure requirements the agency put on broadband providers. Likewise, his worries about privacy would be a lot more believable if he hadn’t cheered last year when Congress repealed his agency’s rules that were designed to protect the private information of broadband customers.
And his concerns about free speech would ring a lot truer if he hadn’t completely dismissed the free speech concerns voiced from all over the political spectrum about the danger of killing the net-neutrality protections. Those protections barred broadband providers from blocking or slowing access to particular online sites or services. Without them, broadband providers are free to block or throttle access to any sites or services they like for any reason at all — including to suppress particular speakers or speech.
“It’s the height of hypocrisy,” said Gigi Sohn, a fellow at Georgetown Law who previously served as a counselor to Tom Wheeler, Pai’s predecessor as head of the FCC.
A representative for Pai did not respond to an email seeking comment and clarification about his Medium statement.
But Pai’s newfound regulatory zeal is even less convincing because he seems to imply that the FCC ought to have some role in imposing new rules on Google, Facebook, and other internet companies. In talking about what kinds of regulations such companies should have to follow, he repeatedly refers to the transparency rules the FCC has placed on broadband providers (without, of course, mentioning that he recently weakened them). And even in dismissing the idea of utility-style regulations, he hints at the notion that the FCC would be the agency that might put such rules in place.
“The government — in particular, the Federal Communications Commission, which I have the privilege of leading — shouldn’t regulate these entities like a water company,” he said.
The laughable thing about all this is that his agency has no recognized authority over online companies such as Google and Facebook. So here you have an official who washed his hands of regulating the companies his agency is actually charged with overseeing seemingly suggesting that his agency ought to crack down on companies it doesn’t actually regulate.
As Sohn put it: “Why is that any of your business? You regulate networks.”
Of course, if you take a step back, it’s pretty easy to see and understand what’s going on here. It’s all political.
Late last month, President Trump launched a jihad against Google and Facebook, apparently after seeing an episode of Lou Dobbs’ Fox Business show that alleged that Google was suppressing conservative voices and positive news about Trump. The move came after Google and other companies kicked far-right conspiracy monger Alex Jones off their services.
Since Trump’s attack, conservatives from all corners — most of whom, like Pai, have generally supported laissez faire policies in the past — have fallen in line and dutifully trained their fire on the big tech companies. Last week, right-wing talk show host Laura Ingraham floated the idea of regulating the tech companies like utilities. On Wednesday, Republican congressional leaders harangued Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey over alleged bias against conservatives. Later in the day, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced he’ll meet with the attorneys general of some of the states to discuss whether the tech companies are stymieing free speech and competition.
Again, all this concern over the power of the big tech companies would be more convincing if conservatives had made any kind of noise about corporate power before Trump started making sounding off about it. Instead, for the last 40 years, Republicans have generally taken the stance that bigger is better, consolidation is good for consumers, and the market will correct any sort of monopolistic practices, no government intervention needed. (The Democrats, mind you, have only been barely better on this score.)
With all the public relations hits Trump has been taken lately — his former campaign manager convicted of fraud, his former attorney pleading guilty to violating campaign finance laws on his behest, and now, the damning inside looks at his administration from Bob Woodward and the anonymous New York Times op-ed writer — it’s easy to understand why he and his ideological allies would like to change the subject.
Maybe some good will come of this. The big internet companies do deserve more scrutiny, not for censoring conservative voices for ideological reasons — for which there’s little evidence — but because of their sheer market power and control.
But if Ajit Pai is any indication of how Republicans are approaching this effort, it’s hard to believe it will be anything more than a political stunt meant to appease the president and distract from all terrible stuff going on around him.
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