What More Do We Know About Ajit Pai’s Agenda?
By Robbie McBeath
Mar 24 2017
Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai delivered his first major policy speech as Chairman on March 15th, in remarks titled, “Bringing the Benefits of the Digital Age to All Americans.” At Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pai discussed his guiding principles for his regulatory approach as FCC Chairman, and concluded with practical policies he will be championing to expand broadband access nationwide.
Chairman Pai’s Guiding Principles
Chairman Pai outlined four guiding regulatory principles:
• The Importance of Digital Empowerment and the “Democratization of Entrepreneurship”: “I believe in the power of Internet-based technologies to create jobs, grow our economy, and improve people’s lives in countless ways.“
• Ubiquitous Access to Digital Opportunity: “I believe that every American who wants to participate in our digital economy should be able to. Access to digital opportunity shouldn’t depend on who you are or where you’re from…As Chairman, I plan to focus more time and attention than the FCC traditionally has on places where people feel left behind—places that Washington too often looks past.”
• A Competitive Free Market Unleashes Private-Sector Ingenuity: “The public interest is best served when the private sector has the incentives and freedom to invest and create. That’s why we must eliminate unnecessary barriers to investment that could stifle new discoveries and services. In particular, the government should aim to minimize regulatory uncertainty, which can deter long-term investment decisions.”
• The Free Market Doesn’t Mean that Government Has No Role: “I believe that a healthy respect for the free market doesn’t mean that government has no role. For example, the FCC must protect consumers and promote public safety.”
Most readers will agree that the Internet is a powerful tool for entrepreneurship, opportunity, and innovation. But Chairman Pai falls short on extolling the benefits of the Internet beyond economic gains. The Internet opens more avenues for civic engagement, creates easier access to healthcare and education, and connects communities to strengthen the social fabric of our society. Pai’s guiding regulatory principles are economically motivated: help entrepreneurs, help potential consumers, free up the marketplace. Chairman Pai says, “Access to digital opportunity shouldn’t depend on who you are or where you’re from.” Why not add “or how much you earn”?
What is “The Public Interest”?
Of note in this speech is Ajit Pa’s view of the public interest, a key concept referred to many times in U.S. communications law. According to Chairman Pai:
The public interest is best served when the private sector has the incentives and freedom to invest and create. That’s why we must eliminate unnecessary barriers to investment that could stifle new discoveries and services. In particular, the government should aim to minimize regulatory uncertainty, which can deter long-term investment decisions.
It’s worth noting how Chairman Pai’s predecessor, Tom Wheeler, viewed the ‘public interest’. In interviews near the end of his tenure, Wheeler said his greatest lesson from being Chairman was, “how malleable the definition of the public interest becomes when it comes to protecting self-interest.” Having previously served as an industry lobbyist, Wheeler said that, as FCC Chairman, he came to a realization that, in meeting with lobbying and other groups, “everyone comes in here and talks about how their self-interest is synonymous with the public interest.”
Wheeler said, “I needed to define the public interest as the common good. At a time when everyone is wrapping their self-interest in their definition of public interest, the question has to be what is the best way to serve the common interests of the most [people].”
Indeed, looking back at Wheeler’s first policy speech as FCC Chairman, he said:
[T]he most important thing I hope you will take away from my remarks today is not what the FCC is doing, but why we are doing it. And the answer to that question is that we are the people’s representatives, acting on behalf of the public, who have the responsibility to maintain the values you find important.