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For the bulk of his tenure, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has avoided wading into the relentless controversies that defined President Trump's presidency. He has faced massive protests over his rollback of net neutrality rules, pressure to break from Trump as the president targeted the "fake news media" and White House orders to rein in Section 230, Trump's least favorite law. Throughout it all, Pai has remained relatively quiet, avoiding speaking publicly about the president at all.
But in the final days of the Trump era, as Republican officials are finally breaking from Trump's control in the wake of violence on Capitol Hill, Pai is cautiously distancing himself from the president — in his own, understated way.
In an interview on C-SPAN's "The Communicators," Pai told Protocol and C-SPAN co-host Peter Slen that he does not intend to move forward with a rule-making on Section 230, which was laid out in Trump's social media executive order. He said he won't "second-guess" the decisions made by Facebook and Twitter to bar Trump from posting. And he said the president bears some responsibility for the riots that engulfed Capitol Hill on Wednesday.
"I think it was a terrible mistake to suggest that the results of the election, and particularly the process that culminated yesterday in the Senate and the House, could in any way be changed," Pai, who has announced his intention to leave the FCC on Jan. 20, said. "That was a terrible mistake and one that I do not think in any way should have been indulged."
Here are some of the highlights from the conversation with Pai, which will air on C-SPAN this weekend.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
On Oct. 15, you said that you intend to move forward with a rule-making for clarity on Section 230. What's the status of that?
The status is that I do not intend to move forward with the notice of proposed rule-making at the FCC.
And why is that?
The reason is, in part, because given the results of the election, there's simply not sufficient time to complete the administrative steps necessary in order to resolve the rule-making. Given that reality, I do not believe it's appropriate to move forward.
If you could, what do you think should be done on Section 230?
There's now a bipartisan consensus among elected officials that the law should be changed. Obviously the president believes it should be repealed, President-elect Biden has campaigned repeatedly on its repeal, but within Congress there appears to be a consensus also that it should be revised or reformed in some way. Obviously in terms of changing the law, that's a decision for lawmakers to consider, but I do think there are certain bipartisan consensus areas forming regarding how it should be revised.
It's a very complicated issue, one that I think Congress will have to study and deliberate on very seriously. I personally would think about it more carefully in terms of the immunity provision, for example, but those are the kinds of things that I think the next administration and Congress will think about very carefully.
Just yesterday, we saw violence and chaos erupt on Capitol Hill, perpetuated by Trump supporters in his name. Do you think the president bears any responsibility for what happened yesterday?
The scenes we saw yesterday were outrageous and extremely disappointing to those of us who cherish American democracy, one hallmark of which is the peaceful transition of power. To answer your question, I think it was a terrible mistake to suggest that the results of the election, and particularly the process that culminated yesterday in the Senate and the House, could in any way be changed. That was a terrible mistake and one that I do not think in any way should have been indulged.
Do you think that the president's indulgence of those theories was in part responsible for what happened?
I haven't studied all the statements that were made and actions that were taken. I was following it as closely as I could on television. But all I'll say is, given the circumstances that we saw — armed guards defending the Senate chamber, people wielding Confederate flags in the seat of the United States government — it was completely unacceptable, completely outrageous. We must be governed by the rule of law, not by the rule of the mob. Law and order must be restored and democracy must be respected. Those are the bedrock expectations of every American citizen. It is what distinguishes democracy from other governments around the world. I believe that to my core, regardless of political affiliation or circumstance.
We've seen several administration officials today resigning or considering resigning. Has that crossed your mind given that you're horrified by how this has played out?
I issued a statement on Nov. 30 announcing my intention to leave on Jan. 20. I lead an independent agency, an agency that is independent from the executive branch and other elected officials in the legislative branch as well. My position has been consistently that I would leave on Jan. 20. We have a public meeting scheduled for Jan. 13. At that meeting, we'll be focusing on the incredible efforts of the FCC over the last four years. I want the focus to shine on them at that meeting to enable the American people to know that not just the FCC commissioner but, more importantly, the FCC's career staff have delivered over the last four years.
Do you agree with Facebook and Twitter's decision to pull the president off of social media?
Given the circumstances we saw yesterday, I'm not going to second-guess those decisions.
With their aggressive actions this week, Facebook and Twitter are admitting they could have played a role in enabling the spread of misinformation and incitements from President Trump. Do you think that's right, and do you think the FCC should have done more to regulate social media platforms over the last four years?
I'm not sure what regulations you or other advocates of that position might have in mind. What I will say is what I said [in] November of 2017, long before this was a dominant strain in the dominant discourse: Social media increasingly defines the public square when it comes to political speech. We need more transparency and understanding how some of these decisions are made, how certain content is allowed or not allowed on these platforms.
At the time that was seen as a big contrarian take, but now I think it's increasingly the norm; people don't have any insight into how these decisions are made. I think it will require elected officials to consider that, among other factors, as they're thinking about whether and how to regulate social media companies.
Research emerged recently showing some of the money going to the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, which is geared toward getting unserved areas connected, is going to non-rural areas. For instance, 13% of the $885 million going to SpaceX is ultimately going to pretty rural areas. Do you think this money is being doled out as it should be? Do you think the FCC needs to close the loopholes that are enabling this to happen?
The overwhelming majority of the funding that is going to be distributed is, in fact, being distributed to areas that most people would consider rural. For those areas that some partisan activists have suggested are more urban in nature, those have been defined as unserved. So we were focusing on unserved areas wherever they happen to be. Moreover, we published a list of these areas well in advance of the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund.
I understand there are always going to be some who are going to nitpick about a tiny percentage of the $9 billion that was doled out, but the overall picture is one of the digital divide closing, thanks in part to the bold initiative we took. We were transparent in the lead-up to the auction, and we were efficient in the way we distributed the funds during the auction to ensure everybody had a chance to compete, including innovative companies that are based in space.
Early in the pandemic, the FCC led the Keep Americans Connected Pledge, in which over 800 companies said they would not disconnect or charge consumers exorbitant late fees. Now we know there have been some issues with providers — the FCC has seen at least 550 consumer complaints from people saying their providers violated that pledge. Reflecting back on that pledge, do you wish that it hadn't been voluntary and the FCC would have had more oversight power to hold the companies accountable? What could have been done better?
The Keep Americans Connected Pledge was one of the most successful initiatives not just at the FCC but across government in showing government could step up during the pandemic and deliver results for the American people. If we went down the path that some partisan activists have demanded — initiated a rule-making that would essentially nationalize these companies and force them into a regulatory box — that would have consumed an enormous amount of time, time we didn't have, and it arguably would have been unlawful. It would have been overturned in court. And it would have disincentivized companies from being proactive in offering some of these things to consumers on their own.
Even though it seems tempting to say we should have nationalized the broadband networks during this emergency, this effort was much more successful. If you look at the full spectrum, pardon the pun, for all of the FCC's efforts during the pandemic, it has been a great example of how public-private partnerships are much more effective in a pinch than the heavy-handed control of Washington.
To return to the issue of Section 230, there's been extensive reporting that showed the White House pulled former Commissioner Michael O'Rielly's nomination in part because he did not support President Trump's executive order. Does that concern you, and do you think that's a proper reason to pull a nomination?
I had no idea that decision would be made. I had no part in it. I'll simply say that Mike is not just a friend, he was a very strong commissioner. He and I served together at the agency for almost seven years. He served with distinction, so I'm proud for his service and thank him for the work he did at the agency.
Did you ever feel pressure from the White House at the time the social media executive order was signed to act? Did you feel pressure to act on the [National Telecommunications and Information Administration]'s petition?
I did not. Something I've made a point of doing over the last four years is maintaining the agency's independence. On any issue, I've always said that we look at the law, we look at the facts, and we make an independent determination. It could be something as arcane as a pole attachment dispute in Wyoming, or something as big as a social media executive order. I will always view it, so long as I serve at the agency, in that independent spirit, and that's exactly what we have done here.
Do you intend to stay in the tech and telecom space after you leave?
I don't have any plans at this time. Obviously, I've had the privilege of serving as leader of this independent agency for four years, served at the agency for the better part of the last 13. It has been the ride of a lifetime.
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Emily Birnbaum ( @birnbaum_e) is a tech policy reporter with Protocol. Her coverage focuses on the U.S. government's attempts to regulate one of the most powerful industries in the world, with a focus on antitrust, privacy and politics. Previously, she worked as a tech policy reporter with The Hill after spending several months as a breaking news reporter. She is a Bethesda, Maryland native and proud Kenyon College alumna.