23: He's Not in Kansas Anymore: How FCC Chairman Ajit Pai's Roots Will Influence Internet Policy

Ajit Pai is the new chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, elevated by President Trump. 

Ajit Pai is the new chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, elevated by President Trump. 

Ajit Pai doesn't come across as the sort of guy who'd be crossing swords with Silicon Valley. 

Question him about controversial topics and his answers come quickly, but always tempered by a Midwestern sincerity. Among the current crop of communication industry regulators, he was the first on Twitter. 

But yes, Pai is a controversial figure in the tech world. President Trump appointed him chairman of the regulatory body, and one of his first moves was to roll back regulations that would have prevented broadband providers from using your Internet browsing history to sell you advertising. I asked him about that – and more – for Fortt Knox. 

Here's some of what he told me: 

It Goes Back to Kansas 

Pai is the son of two doctors, and recalls growing up in rural Kansas, where his dad sometimes would have to drive more than an hour to see patients. He says that aspect of his background – being disconnected from big-city and suburban conveniences – influences the way he looks at his role shaping policy. 

"It's the fundamental driver of the policies that I'm trying to promote at the FCC, because I've seen for myself in my own childhood and as a commissioner having traveled around the country from Alaska to Mississippi, that there are some big gaps in America in terms of connectivity," he says.  

The first policy priority he lists on his FCC bio is the expansion of broadband, including to rural areas. That might even help doctors to see more patients digitally when they don't specifically need a house call. 

Same Rules for Everyone 

The way many of the headlines about Internet privacy rules are written, Pai's stance on letting Internet service providers market your usage data doesn't make sense. Why would you want to let Comcast (the parent company of CNBC's Fortt Knox) or AT&T, or Verizon, etc. sell that information? Pai argues that's not the point. Companies like Google and Facebook already have access to tons of information on us, Pai argues. Unless we set a level playing field, we let them off the hook. 

"We just want every company that is handling consumers' data to handle it in the same way. I think that's something that would give consumers a much better sense of confidence when they go online," Pai says. 

In other words, if you're outraged about Comcast selling your browsing habits, you should be just as outraged about Silicon Valley doing it. First level the playing field, then make rules that apply to everyone. He has a lot of skeptics to win over, especially in the tech world. 

A Light Touch 

Like many Republican public servants in government, Pai argues for a light touch when it comes to interpreting the law. (You'll see similar language coming out of new Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch.) That sets up an interesting contradiction when it comes to tech issues. 

Silicon Valley loves to smash regulations when it benefits their innovation argument. Look at Uber and Airbnb trying to smash taxi and hotel regulations, for example. When the shoe is on the other foot, though, Silicon Valley leaders tend to love regulations like Net Neutrality, which they argue keeps broadband providers from stifling innovation. 

That's why some in the tech industry are skeptical of Pai, who argues for a light touch in some places where they want a heavier hand. 

"I view my role as being a rather boring, frankly, and humble one," Pai says, "which is to take a look at the papers that are in front of me, and analyze the facts soberly, and make an informed decision based on the law and the precedents." 

In a time when the rules in technology and content are shifting at an unprecedented pace, we'll have to see what that really means.