From all indications, Ajit Pai is a nice guy.
Those who have interviewed Pai, whom President Donald Trump promoted to chairman of the Federal Communications Commission on Monday, say he's mild-mannered, a good listener and believes very strongly in open, vigorous debate. For evidence of his congeniality, they often cite that Pai was raised in Kansas (though I'm not sure what that's supposed to mean).
When it comes to net neutrality, however, the public may soon see a very different Ajit Pai -- maybe the one who has spent the past 10 years in Washington.
Despite his magnanimous reputation, Pai is being urged to take an ax to the 2015 Open Internet Order, better known as net neutrality. Rather than restart another multiyear debate topped by the inevitable court ruling, Pai could use his newfound Republican majority on the five-member FCC to hammer through an "advisory opinion" that would have the nullifying impact of suspending the agency's legal authority to enforce the Open Internet Order.
(The agency always has three members of one party to two from the other, which means there's an opening on both sides of the aisle following the resignation of Pai's predecessor, Democrat Tom Wheeler, and the failure to reconfirm Jessica Rosenworcel, also a Democrat. Republican Michael O'Rielly and Democrat Mignon Clyburn are the other commissioners.)
In other words, Pai could let the order stand but would provide "a safe harbor for internet service providers and tech companies who wish to operate under the light-touch regulatory regime that was in operation prior to 2015," wrote Brent Skorup, a research fellow at George Mason University's Mercatus Center, a research institute funded in part by the Koch Brothers, in "How to neuter Title II on Day 1 of a Trump FCC."
If Pai chooses to issue such an advisory order, possibly as soon as the FCC's March meeting, he likely would tickle AT&T (T) , Comcast (CMCSA) and Verizon (VZ) , where he once held the position of associate general counsel. But in doing so, Pai risks being accused of the same heavy-handedness that he often charged was a hallmark of the FCC under Wheeler.
"There's a tension here," said Berin Szoka, president of TechFreedom, a Washington think tank that often has sided with Pai. "He absolutely criticized Wheeler for ignoring input, but this whole enterprise, the Open Internet Order, rests on mistaken legal claims, so it's going to be difficult for Pai not to undo them."
In other words, Pai might abandon his congenial standing to do what he feels is right and overdue, which is to turn the FCC away from enacting protections and rules aimed at aiding consumers in their dealings with large for-profit corporations. As he probably knows, such an advisory order likely would spark many of the same street marches and colorful demonstrations that took place outside the FCC's headquarters in the run-up to the February 2015 vote that secured net neutrality.
It might also force the question of net neutrality back to Congress, which is what Pai and others have argued is long overdue. Needless to say, such a debate would get political very quickly.