In August, Greenlining had a silly ‘awards’ ceremony and my telco and tech team got the “Fueled by Bottomless Rage” award. While it was funny, I didn’t feel all too much rage – after all, telecom policy under the previous FCC Chairman, Tom Wheeler was pretty solid. He put in rules protecting net neutrality, told internet service providers (ISPs) they couldn’t spy on your browsing history and sell it to advertisers, expanded the Lifeline program to make it easier for low-income folks to get access to broadband and promoted ISP competition to drive down prices and increase adoption. In other words, the FCC was doing its job: protecting consumers and making broadband access more affordable and available.
Now everything’s changed. Nearly a year into Ajit Pai’s FCC chairmanship, I can safely say my rage tank is full. In fact, Ajit Pai has a lot in common with one of the greatest villains of all time, Dolores Umbridge from the Harry Potter books. To see why, let’s first consider a shortlist of Pai’s FCC actions.
KILLING NET NEUTRALITY IS JUST THE START
- He just got the FCC to vote to kill net neutrality. His proposal will widen the digital divide and give a handout to a handful of large ISPs. His justifications are wrong, he’s ignored any semblance of transparency despite widespread fraud in the commenting process and he’s ignored massive grassroots support for net neutrality.
- He effectively killed the Lifeline for broadband program by revoking permission from companies that wanted to provide broadband to low-income Americans and schoolchildren, and put up significant regulatory barriers for carriers that want to join the program.
- He plans to undermine the Lifeline phone program, which makes basic phone service affordable for millions, by slashing its funding, and putting in rules that ensure big telcos like AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint are the only companies that can receive Lifeline subsidies. Seventy percent of Lifeline customers will have to switch to a new carrier, that is, if they can find one that’s willing to provide them service.
- He helped nullify broadband privacy rules that would’ve required ISPs to get your permission before selling your Web history to advertisers.
- He eliminated a merger requirement that would’ve lowered prices by forcing Charter cable to provide broadband service to one million homes in areas that didn’t have any broadband competition.
- He removed a rule preventing price gouging on business internet services by saying that a market is competitive even if there is only one ISP in that market.
- He’s proposed removing consumer protections for rural communities that made sure that there was a comparable alternative in place before telcos disconnected folks from their copper lines (these lines are often used for internet, phone, alarm systems, credit card machines etc.). Pai seeks to gut that requirement and Greenlining is suing the FCC over this order.
In a nutshell, he’s rolled back any consumer protection he could find in order to benefit a handful of companies all the while hurting ordinary Americans and widening the digital divide. So, with that background, let’s see the similarities between Dolores Umbridge and Ajit Pai.
ATTENTION HARRY POTTER FANS
Stephen King called Umbridge the “greatest make-believe villain to come along since Hannibal Lecter.” For those not up on their Harry Potter, Umbridge is a powerful and highly capable bureaucrat in the Ministry of Magic that ignores any evidence that contradicts her worldview. As a result, she single-mindedly uses the power of her office to pursue policies that harm the very people she is supposed to serve.
Harry Potter fans may start to see similarities between Dolores Umbridge and Ajit Pai.
For one, they seem like regular, likeable people: Umbridge has a love of all things pink, a girlish voice and is always politely smiling. Similarly, Pai has a big smile, he cracks jokes about himself and shows his quirkiness by carrying around a huge Reese’s mug.
But Umbridge and Pai do the opposite of what they promise:
Umbridge tells Hogwarts students she would make their education a top priority, but stops teaching her students any practical magic and refused to let them ask any questions. Pai began his chairmanship saying his biggest priority is closing the digital divide but his policies only widen it.
CLICK TO SHARE AND TWEET: Ajit Pai just killed #NetNeutrality. He is the real-life version of Dolores Umbridge.
Pai and Umbridge both willfully ignore any evidence that contradicts their narrative. Just as Dolores Umbridge refused to believe that Voldemort had returned, Ajit Pai claims that he needs to repeal net neutrality because it hurts investment, despite overwhelming evidence showing he’s wrong. He’s ignored millions of public comments that support net neutrality by claiming fraud, yet he won’t help investigate that fraud. He also refuses to acknowledge over 50,000 complaints that show ISPs engaging in possible violations of net neutrality while also somehow claiming that there are no violations of net neutrality.
Harry Potter fans know that Dolores Umbridge’s policies ultimately allowed Voldemort’s rise and particularly harmed disfavored groups, including ‘muggles’ and werewolves.
Pai’s victims aren’t werewolves, they’re low-income folks who are disproportionately people of color. And instead of Voldemort we have ISPs chomping at the bit to milk customers for more money. Many of us won’t like it when ISPs find new ways to charge us more for our internet, but for the estimated 83 million Americans who don’t have home broadband, it makes getting connected even more unaffordable and further out of reach.
Pai’s policies show that he thinks giving large ISPs everything they want will somehow mean these companies will somehow choose to lower prices out of the goodness of their hearts. Call me cynical but I don’t see that happening. We need competition to spur lower prices, and since we don’t have any of that competition, we need consumer protections.
On the bright side, just like Harry Potter ended Dolores Umbridge’s reign of terror, we can halt Ajit Pai’s terrible, anti-consumer agenda.
You can help stop Ajit Pai by using this link to contact your elected officials. The massive protests are working! Tell your representatives to use the Congressional Review Act to try and nullify the FCC’s net neutrality repeal, while you’re at it, tell them to support H.R. 4585, a bill that would protect net neutrality. Universal service through LifeLine, lower internet prices and net neutrality are bipartisan issues and if we can get enough support, Congress can put a stop Ajit Pai’s anti-consumer agenda.
Vinhcent Le is Greenlining’s Telecommunications Legal Counsel. Follow him on Twitter.