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On Pitchforks and Policy

01.23.2018

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai has a lot on his plate. On top of running a critical independent federal agency, he now must do so under a cloud of hate speech and death threats directed at him and his young children.

As a citizen of the greatest and freest nation on earth, it’s hard to fathom. Threatening the lives of public officials should feel foreign; behavior more at home in failed states and dictatorships. Yet from having his children’s names plastered around his neighborhood to being forced to cancel his appearance at the Consumer Electronics Show due to fears for his safety, this is the America that Pai, a son of Indian immigrants who embodies their dream for a more hopeful future, raises his own children in.

This behavior is unacceptable in any circumstance, and it is an especially sad irony that it’s being directed at a public servant who has made it his No. 1 priority to connect all Americans, regardless of circumstance, to the 21st century apparatus by which they can express their constitutional right to freedom of speech.

If you are unfamiliar with exactly why Chairman Pai has been targeted, here are the cliff notes: After a year of public debate, millions of comments and a 3-2 vote by the five commissioners at the FCC, the body rolled back a two-year old rule regulating the vast, evolving broadband ecosystem under 1930s-era law known as “Title II” that would regulate the internet as a public utility.

Chairman Pai’s support for repealing the rule stems from his dedication to closing the “digital divide” so communities across the nation have access to fast and reliable broadband networks to evolve alongside the 21st century digital economy. Progress toward this goal, he believed, can be optimized when we have a regulatory structure that not only encourages private investment, but is as smart and innovative as the technology it oversees.

While the December vote was undoubtedly a loss for proponents of Title II regulation of internet service providers (and this is exactly as dense and complex as it sounds), in our democracy, disagreements over policy should remain just that — disagreements.

Instead, what we are now witnessing in so many areas of our society is a dissolution of public discourse where even relatively below-the-radar public servants are being subjected to acrimonious, hostile and violent epithets because of the policy decisions they advance.

Civility is a broad concept — and we’ve hit a disturbing new low.

We are on the precipice of a new generation of broadband networks, where quantum computing, artificial intelligence and pervasive, ubiquitous and dense ultra-high speed networks will bring profound and lasting economic, cultural and social benefits to all our citizens. It’s time to renew our commitment to the responsible and decent use of these networks.

During a recent speech at The Media Institute, Chairman Pai encouraged a return to civility in our civic discourse. Despite our politics, he said, we should “see each other as people aspiring for a better country, but envisioning different paths for getting there.” Yes, it is our right as citizens to raise a ruckus whenever we feel called to advance our beliefs and values. But it is equally our obligation to raise the bar when it comes to how we choose to do so.

The stakes are too high to accept anything less. American history is rooted in the trajectory of innovative communication networks. From George Washington’s canal systems to Thomas Jefferson’s postal roads, to transformative inventions like the telegraph, telephone and now the internet, our nation propelled innovation forward through bipartisanship, comity and thoughtful debate.

In 1996, the Telecommunication Act achieved a national framework that defined the United States as a global technology leader, thanks in large part to an understanding by our elected officials that despite differences in philosophy, working together would create unbelievable returns for our country.

Broadband networks and expanding internet access allow our voices as citizens to be heard like never before. We should be proud of that fact and double down on our commitment to make the most of this incredible opportunity.  But one thing is certain as we work together to shape the internet’s future: debate over policy can’t occur if it’s too dangerous for the nation’s top regulator to set foot in the room.

Note: This op-ed was printed in Morning Consult on Tuesday, January 23, 2018. View the original article here