Earlier this week Ajit Pai, the new chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, took time out of his busy schedule of screwing consumer privacy to make an empty statement. He said that the FCC won’t allow voice calls on planes, “clarifying” something that hasn’t been an issue for years.
The decision itself is not bad, as being stuck on a plane next to an over-eager printer salesperson is somewhere in Dante’s circles of hell. But the timing of the decision — right after Pai pushed for a surprisingly unpopular measure on internet privacy — is suspect, and it goes against Pai’s stated goals as FCC chairperson.
Pai is an ardent believer that the FCC should be a light-touch organization, a technical regulator that makes sure your cellphones don’t give you cancer and your landline phone dials the right number. He has had a vote on the Commission since 2012, but thought that the Obama-era FCC went too far in burdening the industry with unnecessary consumer regulations.
Speaking in December, the former Verizon lawyer said that “Proof of market failure should guide the next Commission’s consideration of new regulations,” and since then, he’s repeatedly shown his stripes.
He thinks that ISPs can be trusted to protect consumer privacy and net neutrality on their own, with no need for federal regulation on those issues. Despite broadband internet being provided by regional monopolies, with most consumers having no choice of high-speed broadband provider, Pai thinks that there’s enough competition already. When repeatedly faced with proof of market failure (but market failure that benefits the telecoms industry), Pai thinks that regulation isn’t necessary.
But hey, when it comes to something that has no proof of “market failure” but doesn’t involve the telecoms industry, Pai turns into a consumer watchdog! In a statement upholding the FCC’s current ban on cellphone calls, Pai said that “I do not believe that moving forward with this plan is in the public interest. Taking it off the table permanently will be a victory for Americans across the country.”
Presumably, allowing ISPs to sell browsing data and violate the principle of a free and open internet wasn’t a victory for Americans across the country, then.
Announcing that the FCC will continue its current ban on in-flight cellphone calls is a clever PR move for Pai. There wasn’t really any danger that calls would be allowed on planes: the airlines, Department for Transportation, and Senate have all said that they would ban cell calls if the FCC allowed them. Former Chairman Tom Wheeler circulated a proposal to re-examine cell calls on planes in 2013, but it went nowhere. Pai seems to be bringing the issue up again just so he can look pro-consumer for a change.
Pai’s appointment as FCC chair has been less contentious than some of President Trump’s other personnel moves. Although he moved quickly to roll back Obama-era regulation, Pai at least has the resume and public speaking skills that other administration officials lack.
But don’t be awed by the promise to turn the FCC into an impartial, non-regulatory body that doesn’t stick its nose in unnecessarily. When it suits Pai, he can clearly be a champion for consumer rights — just as long as they don’t infringe on the rights of the telecom industry to extract massive profit.