Cartoonish internet supervillain Ajit Pai, the Donald Trump-appointed Republican chairman of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, announced Monday that he is leaving the agency on Jan. 20 before the incoming Biden administration shows him the door. Pai’s departure marks the end of an era at the FCC defined by scandals, screw-overs, and screw-ups.
Despite the list of accomplishments the outgoing chairman lays out in a statement announcing his departure, Pai’s tenure as FCC chairman was defined in his first year by his disingenuous and wildly unpopular move to kill net neutrality protections that forbid internet providers from blocking or throttling access to online content or charging more to use online sites or services. Under President-elect Joe Biden’s administration, the FCC will again be led by Democrats, who are expected to reinstate net neutrality rules.
Democratic FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, a fierce critic of Pai, is considered a frontrunner to lead the agency after Pai’s departure. “While we did not always agree on policy matters, I always valued our shared commitment to public service,” Rosenworcel said in a statement. “Serving the American people is a tremendous honour and I wish him the best in the future.”
Beyond simply eliminating net neutrality, Pai’s FCC made a mockery of itself after the agency lied about suffering cyberattacks when its system buckled under a bombardment of comments regarding its upcoming net neutrality vote. An FCC inspector general’s report, released in August 2018, found that Pai knew for seven months that the agency’s cyberattack claims were false before finally acknowledging that it had misled the American public.
Other Pai blunders include potentially lying to Congress regarding an FCC investigation into the sale of phone location data, using bogus numbers to tout the agency’s supposed progress on expanding broadband internet access, and the dubious approval of a merger between Tribune Media and Sinclair Broadcasting Group.
Fight for the Future, a non-profit that rose to prominence through its battles with the Pai-led FCC, cheered the chairman’s exit with expected zeel.
“Ajit Pai will go down in history as one of the most corrupt government officials of the century. His callous attack on net neutrality and blatant coddling of Big Telecom monopolies sparked the largest cross-partisan online backlash in the modern era,” Evan Greer, FFTF’s deputy director, said in a statement. “As he fades into the background, his smug demeanour and giant Reese’s mug will become cautionary memes — reminding Internet users what happens when we don’t hold our government accountable.”
The makeup of the FCC could change before Pai and Trump leave their positions, and there is still time for the agency’s Republican commissioners to do some last-minute damage.
On Wednesday, the Senate is scheduled to vote on Trump nominee Nathan Simington to replace outgoing FCC commissioner Mike O’Reilly. A senior advisor at the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, Simington is believed to have authored Trump’s disastrous executive order on Section 230 of the Communications Act, which tasks the FCC with investigating content moderation by social media companies. Legal experts say the agency lacks the authority to do so, but while Pai’s still at the helm, you can bet they’re still going to try.