Trump’s FCC Pick Is Threatening the Jobs His Boss Promised America

Ajit Pai is chipping away at the US’s best job creation machine —the open web.

Obama FCC head Tom Wheeler (left) and Ajit Pai (right). (Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)

Rusty Justice has become quite the media darling in the past year. He co-owns Bit Source, a company in Pikeville, Kentucky (population: about 7,000) that re-trains miners as software programmers. It’s designed for the core “Make America Great Again” demographic: working-class white men with limited job options in coal country. Thus far it seems to be working. When Bit Source advertised its first 10 open positions, the company got nearly 1,000 applicants, mostly from mining industry refugees.

Miners aren’t the only workers gunning for this kind of career shift: The American dream is officially moving online. In the past 35 years, the US job market has careened into cyberspace. The number of American jobs that need computer savvy has jumped 77 percent, while the number of those that call for experience with manual labor has grown a paltry 18 percent. From 2014–2024, job creation for software developers is slated to be more than twice the pace of average job growth.

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To meet the loss of the manufacturing industry, tech jobs are going to have to move outside of Silicon Valley, to the center of the country. This shift, however, won’t just happen—it depends on oversight by the Federal Communications Commission. The FCC ensures that internet access for ex-coal guys in Kentucky looks the same as it does for Mark Zuckerberg.

This uniformity, called open access, is key: It helps level the playing field for people who live outside urban tech centers but nonetheless need to make a living in an digitized economy.

It’s also necessary if you want to, say, create a tech hub in Kentucky. “I have been to coal country,” says Tom Wheeler, who served as FCC chairman during Barack Obama’s second term. “I have met with miners who are now coders. I have been to small towns where, because they were able to build high-speed fiber optic connections, there are more people working now than at the height of the coal boom.”

It doesn’t make inherent business sense to build broadband in rural areas. But part of the way the FCC oversees open access is by treating internet like a public utility—meaning that everyone has to get access to it. The only way Bit Source and its future cousins can dream of competing in a field that constantly innovates and attracts wunderkinds to coastal startup paradise is by keeping everyone on equal digital footing.

But protecting those tenets makes little business sense if you’re AT&T, or Comcast, or Verizon. It makes much more sense to charge a captive audience as much as possible. Some can’t afford to play that game? Not their concern.

For now, companies like Bit Source can thank a wonky, jargon-filled vote that happened two years ago this week for the fact that broadband monoliths must still at least pretend to care about the little guy.

Today, though, the man who was the vote’s most vehement opponent is the FCC’s chairman—and the laws that protect this nascent, necessary job growth in the middle of the country are in jeopardy.

To say Ajit Pai opposed net neutrality is an understatement.

“This order imposes intrusive government regulations that won’t work, to solve a problem that doesn’t exist,” he said at the start of a nearly 30-minute dissent speech.

It was February 2015, in a vast wood-paneled conference room in Washington, D.C. The five FCC commissioners sat on a dais, Wheeler front and center, to listen to and give last-minute missives about net neutrality just before the vote.

The vote was the third attempt to maintain the internet as a place free of tiered speed or service—the culmination of an arduous crusade to rein in the creeping liberties of powerful internet companies. “It had been a 10-year process that had been to court twice,” says Wheeler.

Less than two months after he came aboard, net neutrality’s second trip through the legal system, courtesy of Verizon, struck a heavy blow to the quest. A US Court of Appeals decided the existing net neutrality enforcement method, called the Open Internet Order, overstepped the commission’s authority.

“It then became our challenge as to not whether there should be open internet rules, but what was the best way to structure those rules in a way that would be sustained when the folks that didn’t want rules took us back to court again,” Wheeler says. Classifying ISPs as public utilities akin to gas, water, and electricity—giving the commission more oversight—was the method they settled on trying.

In the months before the vote, the issue fueled passion rarely leveled at a quiet commission dealing in tech jargon. John Oliver opened a show with a 13-minute defense of net neutrality, urging viewers to comment on the proposal. Forty-five thousand did, and the FCC’s commenting system crashed. President Obama urged the FCC to protect open internet.

Momentum built until the victorious 3–2 vote, which fell along party lines on February 26, 2015. It was a triumph, but not a surprise. The win appeared ordained; progress marched on.

The net neutrality win was an optimistic moment for proponents of equal access. And it was reinforced last June: As Wheeler foresaw, the FCC decision was brought to court, where it was upheld in a US Court of Appeals against a challenge from an umbrella trade association.

Before November, most of the government operated under the assumption that the 45th president would be Hillary Clinton, so few people thought that a challenge could come so soon from inside the house.

But Ajit Pai, who has been FCC commissioner since Trump’s inauguration, is not an open-internet Democrat. And he’s quickly made moves to push his anti-open web agenda. In his first few days on the job, he stopped an FCC inquiry into an industry practice where some sorts of content were exempt from data plan limits, called “zero rating.” He also issued an executive orders to scale back a program that offers low-cost internet to poor Americans and to cap prison phone rates.

Zero rating is just a pivot away from fast lanes for the Netflixes and Hulus of the world—big companies who can afford to pony up, unlike, say, a grassroots activist seeking to amplify a message, or a web design service made up of former miners in Kentucky.

It’s hard to become incensed about the denigration of these protections because the whole thing takes place in the theoretical future. Imagine a Facebook where users only see content from individuals that can afford to pay for priority placement. Reprehensible, right? Now imagine that the whole internet worked that way. The Mark Zuckerbergs would still do just fine, but the miners in search of reinvention would lack access to all the requisite resources, without a hint as to what they were missing.

“It’s been a more traditional — at least recently — Republican standpoint always to call for deregulation on the broad theory that it’s best for business,” says Matt Wood, the policy director at Free Press. “But it’s not good for all the businesses who buy internet access instead of selling it. But even if it were true that it’s more pro-business, it’s certainly not good for users.”

Ultimately, Wood believes, undoing net neutrality protections would be bad even for people who voted for Trump. Given that the midterms are a mere two years away, he says it’s unlikely that those protections will be entirely undone. Outside of the beltway, Wood says, being pro-open access is more bipartisan: Many actual coal miners, if not rhetorical ones, can recognize that they’d be left even further behind without it.

But it’s possible the Trump administration will decide to learn this the hard way. Its new Environmental Protection Agency head has made a career of suing the place he’s poised to lead. The new Health and Human Services secretary wants to roll back healthcare protections, including provisions that have made the Affordable Care Act a lifeline for many cash-strapped Americans. In every case, if these appointees prevail, the biggest winners will be the wealthy, who profit from ditching regulations that prevent all opportunistic businessmen from unleashing their inner Martin Shkreli.

If Republicans successfully rollback net neutrality like they claim they want to, it will become remarkably harder for people outside of the halls of power to adapt to changes that are coming—and the pipe dream of a resuscitated mining sector will trump very real access to the modern workforce.