In my 20+ years of doing telecom policy, I have never seen a Chairman so badly botch a proceeding as Chairman Ajit Pai has managed to do with his efforts to repeal Net Neutrality. For all the fun that I am sure Pai is having (and believe me, I understand the fun of getting all snarky on policy), Pai’s failure to protect the integrity of the process runs the serious risk of undermining public confidence in the Federal Communications Commission’s basic processes, and by extension contributing to the general “hacking of our democracy” by undermining faith in our most basic institutions of self-governance.
Yeah, I know, that sounds over the top. I wish I didn’t have to write that. I also wish we didn’t have a President who calls press critical of him “the enemy of the American people,” triggering massive harassment of reporters by his followers. What both Trump and Pai seem to fail to understand is that when you are in charge, what you say and do matters much more than what you said and did before you were in charge. You either grow up and step into the challenge or you end up doing serious harm not only to your own agenda, but to the institution as a whole. Worse, in a time when the President and his team actually welcomed Russia’s “hacking” of our election, and remain under suspicion for coordinating with Russia for support, Pai’s conduct creates concern and distrust that he will also “pull a Putin” by welcoming (or worse, collaborating with) efforts to de-legitimize the FCC’s public comment system and hack the public debate around net neutrality generally.
Fortunately, as I told former Democratic FCC Commissioner Julius Genachowski when he was in danger of making the FCC’s process a laughingstock in the public eye, Pai can still recover and rescue himself and the FCC from his self-destructive conduct. Instead of calling his critics enemies of capitalism and free speech, instead of obsessing about his own hurt feelings while displaying a troubling indifference to identity stealing bots filing comments that support his own proposal and failing to follow up on his own claims that the FCC comment system suffered a critical cyber-attack – Pai needs to follow in the footsteps of Michael Powell, Kevin Martin and Tom Wheeler when they faced similar insults (and in Powell’s case, racial slurs). Welcome robust public debate and criticism, condemn the actually illegal hacking used by his supporters, and stop whining about his own hurt feelings. Michael Powell managed to take being called a War Criminal and son of a war criminal for supposedly allowing the press to sell us on the Iraq War, as well as the same kind of racist bullshit that Pai or any other prominent person of color sadly has to endure in an America where racists feel increasingly emboldened. Pai can chose to step up in the same way his Republican and Democratic predecessors did, or continue to contribute to the overall erosion of trust in our institutions of self-governance generally and his handling of the FCC specifically.
I unpack all this below . . .
Pai Started The Proceeding By Ringing The Dinner Bell For Fanatics Bent on Disruption.
Judging from the Trump campaign, nothing attracts hackers, racists and spammers like calling your opponents enemies of America. Pai started his giant, signature proceeding with a roll out event that included a healthy heaping of scorn and red baiting for Free Press and branding Title II supporters friends of censorship and enemies of freedom. Like Trump’s perpetual attacks on the press, this sounds the dinner bell for the fringe fanatics willing to do things like reportedly use a DDOS to crash the FCC’s comment system] and use identity steeling bots to file pro-Pai comments.
When the cyber hacks and the spam bots started, did Pai call on his supporters to stop illegally messing with the process and limit themselves to civilized debate? Did Pai make any effort as Chair to calm things down? Hell no! Instead, Pai decided to ramp things up another notch by focusing on how some of the comments say horrible, nasty racist things about him. Apparently, Pai regards his hurt feelings and his unfortunate discovery that racism is alive and well in America as more important than addressing his failure (by his own admission) to secure the FCC’s comment system from cyber attack, or to stop spam bots from illegally forging people’s names and addresses on comments supporting his proposals.
Again, lets be clear here about Pai’s apparent priorities. Pai has no time or interest to tell us what steps he has taken to address an alleged cyber attack. Pai has no time or interest to condemn a pro-Pai identity stealing bot whose operator is hacking the FCC’s public comment system the way Putin hacked the Democratic National Committee. What do Pai and his staff have time for? Making sure the whole world knows that some of the comments were mean to Pai. Unlike John Oliver, who admonished Net Neutrality supporters to “stop it! Don’t do that!” Pai has not admonished his supporters to “stop it! Don’t do that” for actual illegal hacking and identity theft. Either Pai thinks that illegal hack attacks that support him are fine, or Pai thinks letting us know how sad he feels when people call him names outweighs actually condemning (let alone criminally investigating) illegal conduct by his supporters.
A Chairman of the FCC who thinks comments that insult him are worse than actual cyber attacks would be funny if it weren’t so potentially serious. But at least Pai fits into the Trump Administration by prioritizing insults and embarrassing leaks over condemning illegal activities where those activities support them. For those following the “Russia hacked the election” story, the issue is not that Russia actually tampered with the voting machines. The issue is that Russia, through a deliberate combination of stealing and strategically releasing email, spreading deceptive news stories, disrupting online forums with paid trolls, and other targeted tactics, sought to undermine the legitimacy of the election and influence the outcome. What remains to be seen is whether Trump or any members of his campaign actively collaborated with the Russians, or if they merely welcomed Russia’s actions as benefiting themselves.
Pai has generally carried on in much the same manner. After starting the process with an invitation to treat opponents of his plan as “the enemy,” Pai has given every appearance of welcoming the deliberate hacking of the FCC’s public comment system by supporters. Needless to say, unless Pai takes steps to actually condemn and address illegal cyber attacks by his supporters, we can expect them to continue to engage in such illegal tactics.
Pai’s Action Raise The Question: Vanity Or Strategy?
Unfortunately, Pai’s willingness to [use demagogue tactics to discredit critics], his apparent indifference and failure to follow up on a supposed cyberattack to his own federal agency, and his suspicious quiet in the face of outright illegal action by his supporters raise serious questions as to whether Pai is deliberately “hacking” (or inviting hacking) the integrity of the FCC’s public comment system. That’s not just me talking. News outlets are already speculating that Pai’s non-stop campaign to draw attention to some hateful tweets is a deliberate attempt to distract the public from the overwhelming number of thoughtful, individual pro-Title II pro-Net Neutrality comments. Two Democratic Senators, as well as Fight For the Future and other grassroots organizations, have asked Pai for proof that there was a cyber attack on the FCC rather than a deliberate effort by Pai to prevent people from filling comments after John Oliver’s call to action. If nothing else, given John Oliver’s legendary ability to mobilize fans in the cause of Net Neutrality, it is negligence bordering on suspicious to wonder why Pai’s FCC did nothing to prepare for an influx of comments when they had days of advance notice that John Oliver planned a to revisit the Net Neutrality issue.
Pai has a lengthy history of pressing his agenda with wild accusations, trying to browbeat and bully opponents and resorting to hyperbolic claims and name calling. I am therefore personally inclined to believe that we are seeing the natural Pai, careless and indifferent to the institutional harm he does, rather than a deliberate effort to pull a Putin and discredit the public comment process as a whole. But either way, the same damage is done to the institution – and by extension to our general institutions of self-governance on issues of public importance.
Pai Needs to Put The Integrity of the FCC’s Process Ahead of His Own Hurt Feelings.
Fortunately for the institution, Pai can still step up and rescue his handling of this proceeding from being a total disaster. But that requires getting over himself and putting the institution and democracy first.
- Pai needs to get out there and denounce the use of pro-Pai identity stealing spambots with at least as much effort as he has spent telling the world how terribly sad mean comments make him feel. He also needs to make it clear the FCC is working with law enforcement to track down people who perpetrate cyber attacks and use identity stealing spambots to try to undermine the process. Lets face it, insulting comments may be mean and make you sad, but a DDOS attack on the FCC is an actual crime – assuming the DDOS actually happened as the FCC claimed in its written statement.
- Additionally, Pai needs to explain how people can get comments that forged their names out of the record. Here’s a link to a website that will search the proceeding by name and let you find out if “you” submitted a pro-Pai comment you don’t remember submitting.
- Pai needs to stop making this all about himself and needs to follow the examples of Michael Powell, Kevin Martin and Tom Wheeler. You think Wheeler liked getting actual death threats, as well as getting cussed out as a corporate shill in comments, or liked people protesting in front of his house? You think Kevin Martin liked being called a all kinds of nasty names for his proposals on deregulation? You think Michael Powell liked having people call him a “War Criminal?” Take a look at the old video of how Michael Powell reacted when protesters heckled him at the media ownership vote in ’03, or what Tom Wheeler said about his critics during the 2014 net neutrality proceeding. You didn’t catch them whining about how ‘mean’ people were. And whatever they may have thought privately, they always stressed the vital importance of public comment and public participation in the FCC’s comments process. They acknowledged that “people are passionate” and that therefore they say not nice things, but they also stressed the importance of acknowledging that passion and not dismissing it.
- Pai needs to apologize to Free Press and for setting the wrong tone on this debate from the beginning. You don’t calm things down by accusing your opponents of being the enemies of capitalism and freedom. No, it doesn’t matter whether advocates themselves (on either side) say nasty things because they are not the Chairman of the FCC. By contrast, Pai is the Chairman of the FCC. It is actually his job to make the process run smoothly, not to make it all about himself and his personal feelings. If Pai wants to calm things down, stop the hacks, and make sure people respect the process, he needs to talk the talk and walk the walk himself. That starts with Pai taking responsibility for what comes out of his mouth and remembering that he isn’t an advocate, he’s not even a just a commissioner. Chairman Pai — you are the guy in charge and folks are going to follow your lead on what is and isn’t acceptable.
I have been around on this to know that the usual suspects (especially my opposite numbers — Cable Team Rocket and Mouf) will undoubtedly respond with all the predictability of a Greek Chorus about how I’m so mean and therefore have no right to criticize Pai for being mean, blah blah blah. And for all I know, they genuinely no longer can tell the difference between advocates trash talking each other v. when the Chairman of the FCC pulls this nonsense. So I’ll tell you what. If Pai can’t hack the responsibility of being Chairman, can’t live up to the standard of his predecessors, and can’t seem to put the integrity of the FCC’s public comment system ahead of his own vanity and hurt feelings, fine. Lets swap. I promise that when I am Chairman I will totally give up on being a snarky blogger. Pai can take over Tales of the Sausage Factory as an advocate for his radical deregulatory agenda and be as snarky and nasty as he wants.
But if Pai insists on actually being the guy in charge, then he needs to step and behave like the head of an agency who is actually responsible for respecting the integrity of public comment process. We have enough problems already with Russia hacking our institutions of self-governance. We don’t need Pai to pull a Putin at the FCC.
Stay tuned . . .