FCC Chairman's Attacks on Free Press Don't Change the Facts

While unveiling his plan to dismantle Net Neutrality and defang the Federal Communications Commission, Chairman Ajit Pai spent a good chunk of Wednesday’s speech defaming Free Press.

Instead of making the case for his new policies, Pai recycled some out-of-context quotes to red-bait one of our co-founders and dismiss our decade-plus efforts to safeguard the open internet.

We’ve made no secret of our disdain for Pai’s policies and his fondness for falsehoods. And we’ve long sparred with him in the press and corrected his lies. But we’ve gotten some questions about what Pai said. So I thought I’d clear up the record.

Free Press is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that has worked on Net Neutrality for more than a decade. We were one of the first groups to put the issue on the map and launched the first “save the internet” campaign back in 2006. We remain one of the leaders of a broad and diverse coalition that supports Net Neutrality and pushed the FCC to protect it the right way again in 2015.

During this time, we’ve put thousands of pages of detailed legal and economic comments on the issue into various FCC dockets. We’ve written hundreds of Op-Eds, press releases, blog posts and email outreaches on Net Neutrality. We’re widely quoted in the press on this issue. We’ve testified in Congress and before the FCC and have debated the issue in countless public forums and national media outlets.

We’ve criticized Democrats and Republicans alike on the issue and organized big rallies and other protests to fight for the free and open internet. In fact, we were outside the Newseum yesterday before Pai delivered his speech to debunk his claims (again) about Net Neutrality’s impact on investment and to share a long list of statements from telecom execs about how Net Neutrality hasn’t actually harmed their companies.

The facts about Net Neutrality aren’t what Pai wants to debate. Despite the voluminous public record of where we stand and what we want, Pai would have you believe we're secretly being guided by some offhand comments to an obscure Canadian socialist academic website by Robert McChesney, a professor who co-founded Free Press in 2003. McChesney is now an emeritus member of our board and isn’t involved in our day-to-day decisions or operations.

Pai was also worked up about an Op-Ed McChesney co-wrote about U.S. coverage of the Venezuelan media a decade ago. Neither of these articles involved Free Press staff, and they weren’t published on our website.

It’s no coincidence that Pai highlighted these snippets. They’ve been circulating on right-wing conspiracy websites since at least 2010. These same quotes pop up every time Net Neutrality is back in the news — and any time a small group of trolls-for-hire senses there might be cable-industry money available to fund them for making such attacks. Glenn Beck talked about these quotes in 2010, the Daily Caller rediscovered them in 2015, and a Breitbart piece cited them just last week.

And now they show up in Pai’s speech. It shouldn’t be such a surprise. This is the Trump-administration playbook: Whether the issue is the environment, health care, immigration or worker safety, Trump and his minions manufacture data and lie about alleged harms to destroy crucial protections and successful policies. Pai’s attack on Net Neutrality is no different.

Of course, Pai’s speech is also reminiscent of another dark period in American politics. As that noted left-wing rag Fortune points out, Pai’s smear campaign against Free Press smacks of McCarthyism.

“We live inside an Orwellian world these days,” Ellen Schrecker, professor emerita of American history at Yeshiva University and author of numerous books about the McCarthy era, told Fortune. “It's a sign of the desperation of the real enemies of a free press that they turn to red-baiting in order to divert attention from their own campaign to subvert the marketplace of ideas.” (Fortune has since posted a revised version of the piece that cuts this quote and drops any discussion of red-baiting. Thanks to the Internet Archive, the original version is linked to here.)

Here at Free Press, we’re not so easily intimidated. We know we’ve got the facts on our side — and the people, too. Maybe if Pai spent less time with industry lobbyists and hate-mongering cranks, he might actually learn that millions are fighting for Net Neutrality because they want the internet to remain an open and uncensored space for economic innovation, free expression and popular organizing.

I know Pai probably won’t make the effort. But he’ll be hearing from those millions of people soon enough.