LAS VEGAS -- Less than a month after pushing a vote in the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to end rules protecting "net neutrality" on the Internet, FCC chairman Ajit Pai missed his victory dance at the Consumer Electronics Show, blaming a series of death threats for cancellation of the FCC Chairman's annual appearance at the giant technology convention.
A year ago, at the same forum in Las Vegas, Ajit Pai had all but guaranteed a new Internet regime ending the era of unrestricted free access to the Web that dates back to its inception by a group of Defense Department scientists in the 1970s.
News reports were sketchy as to whether the threats to Pai came from angry Internet users fearful that a handful of powerful Internet service providers (including Verizon, T-Mobile and AT&T) will restrict "fast-track" access to corporate users willing to pay premium rates, or from white supremacists who have chafed over the appointment of an Indian-American as one of the United States' most powerful regulators.
What's clear was that Consumer Technology Association (CTA) president Gary Shapiro was left interviewing the second banana in the Trump administration's CES regulatory show, Acting Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Chair Maureen Ohlhausen.
Shapiro called the absence of Pai a "horrible situation." Its trigger, of course, was the FCC's 3-2 vote -- along party lines -- on December 14 to cancel a 2015 decision to apply Title II of the 1934 Communications Act to the Internet. That decision, promoted by then FCC chief Tom Wheeler, defined the Internet as a "common carrier" ensuring free access to all its users, similar to radio and terrestrial television.
Ajit Pai, FCC Chairmen (Source: U.S. Federal Communications Commission)
Pai's aggressive pursuit of net-neutrality repeal contradicted his previous stated position that "a dispute this fundamental is not for us, five unelected individuals, to decide. Instead, it should be resolved by the people's elected representatives, those who choose the direction of government, and those whom the American people can hold accountable for that choice."
Not only did the FCC not defer to a Congressional vote on net neutrality, polls have shown that more than eighty percent of the U.S. public oppose Pai's pro-ISP position. The controversy only got worse when it was discovered that the FCC's public comment process was infiltrated by unknown hackers.
The FCC was flooded with fake comments, mostly supporting Pai, many of them using stolen or fabricated identities. The result was the discrediting of the comment process and further turmoil among consumers who depend on the Internet for communication, social media, commerce and news.
In Pai's absence, Shapiro got Ohlhausen, an appointee of President George W. Bush (Barack Obama named Pai to the FCC) with impeccable conservative credentials, to elliptically endorse the FCC's decision on de-neutralizing the Net.
Asked by Shapiro to cite Internet users who merit "priority" over consumers who "just want to watch Netflix," Ohlhausen said health and safety, as well as privacy, deserve preferential treatment.
Shapiro helped out, saying, "Net neutrality is important, but some things are more important than others. This is a nuanced issue."
Nuances aside, this ended a net-neutrality discussion that more than a hundred CES attendees had come to the Las Vegas Convention Center to hear.