FCC Chair Plays for Laughs at D.C. Event Amid Fierce Net Neutrality Debate

Ajit Pai Free Speech

WASHINGTON — On a corner outside of the Washington Hilton on Thursday, dozens of demonstrators protested FCC Chairman Ajit Pai and his upcoming vote to repeal most of the agency’s current net neutrality rules.

Inside the hotel, at event in a packed ballroom, Pai told jokes.

By tradition, that is what he was supposed to do on this occasion, the annual gathering of the Federal Communications Bar Association, known as the “telecom prom.” It is in the same venue as the far more famous White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, but without the famous Hollywood or even D.C. names.

What it did have is the expectation that Pai, like his predecessors, would take the stage and try to make the audience laugh.

First, he greeted the crowd in Russian — then translated. “That’s Russian for, ‘It’s going to be a long night.'”

Then he quickly got to the elephant in the room, net neutrality, which on Thursday was the source of protests not just outside the hotel, but across the country at Verizon stores and elsewhere. It was planned as a day of action in advance of the FCC’s vote on Dec. 14. The protests have been particularly vocal, with net neutrality proponents arguing that the pending action to roll back the rules will free ISPs to turn the internet into a tiered system akin to the cable TV bundle.

Thanking the crowd for coming to the event, Pai quipped, “After all, we have seven more days to use the internet.” There were loud laughs. Then, he deadpanned, “You think I am joking. It’s true.”

He also presented a “leaked” video said to be from 2003, when he was working as a lawyer for Verizon, as the company sets him up to be a “Manchurian candidate” to take over the FCC 14 years later. The video was a riff on claims from net neutrality proponents that he’s been doing the company’s bidding.

Pai also got in some jokes about the social media protest against his proposal. He has said he and his family have received threatening messages as the vote over net neutrality approaches, and he himself has gotten racist remarks and nasty comments on Twitter. Pai has been critical of social media in recent speeches, but on Thursday, he had some lighter material. “Twitter has been a great source of suggestion for what I can do to myself.”

Pai also got in quips about other controversies. Democrats have hammered Pai over Sinclair Broadcast Group’s proposed merger with Tribune Co., and a series of FCC votes to relax media ownership rules that have benefited the broadcast company.

Pai told the hotel crowd that he had some “must run” content to show — and he showed some of the over-the-top commentary from political commentator Mark Hyman, including a segment where Hyman says, “The opinion that only black people can legitimately have an Afro? Someone should tell that to American folk singer Art Garfunkel.”

He also got in a quip about President Donald Trump’s tweet that NBC’s broadcast licenses should be challenged because of unfair news coverage. Pai said of course the FCC wouldn’t be influenced by the White House. “Who do you think we are, the Antitrust Division?”

Another one liner: Calling T-Mobile and Sprint the “Ross and Rachel of telecom.”

Pai’s fellow commissioners were also present, including his two Republican colleagues, Michael O’Rielly and Brendan Carr, along with two Democrats, Jessica Rosenworcel and Mignon Clyburn. The latter two are expected to vote against the rollback of the rules, and Clyburn even addressed demonstrators before the event.

Steve Ruvolo, a digital product manager from New York, said he was compelled to drive in from Virginia, where he has been on a work assignment, to join the protest.

“There are a lot of horrible things happening right now, but this, we are going to be in a chokehold,” he said, as demonstrators chanted, “The people connected will not be defeated.”

He held a sign that read: “Attention corrupt pigs. The internet is not yours to sell.”

“I just feel like this particular issue is very important for the sustenance and development of this country, to communicate and to organize,” Ruvolo said.

“I just hope common sense eventually rules. These guys still can make plenty of money. They don’t need to do this,” he added. “It is very sad that we have some of the slowest internet connections in the modern world.”

Pai has the votes to pass his proposal, which would scrap rules prohibiting internet providers from blocking or throttling content, or from selling “fast lanes” to companies who want to get speedier access to consumers. His proposal would also eliminate the regulatory underpinning for the rules, in which internet providers are classified as common carriers.

Those who favor Pai’s approach say it would return the internet to “light touch regulation,” and that the current rules have stifled investment. It’s likely that the FCC’s move will be challenged in court.