Is this why FCC chairman Ajit Pai canceled his CES appearance?

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Death threats have reportedly led Federal Communications Commission chairman Ajit Pai to cancel a scheduled appearance at CES 2018, less than a week before the world’s biggest gadget show begins. The exact nature of the threats wasn’t supplied by anonymous sources who spoke with Recode, but the news dovetails with information supplied earlier to Digital Trends.

During the event, Pai was supposed to be part of a so-called “candid conversation” alongside Maureen Ohlhausen, the Federal Trade Commission’s acting chairwoman, to be moderated by Consumer Technology Association president and CEO Gary Shapiro. The session would have been Pai’s first appearance at CES as FCC chairman; CES 2018 will mark the first time he has missed the show in five years.

Almost no information was initially supplied regarding Pai’s cancellation, other than an email from the CTA noting that “we look forward to our next opportunity to host a technology policy discussion with him before a public audience.” Reached for comment, Shapiro said Pai did not communicate his reasons, but speculated that concern over violence over his rollback of pending net neutrality rules may have played a role.

“I attended his recent Media Institute speech and was moved greatly. He and his family have been subject to vicious and direct attacks and threats and any decision he makes regarding his own travel is fine with me,” Shapiro told Digital Trends. “I may not agree with him on every issue, but he is a brilliant and committed public servant.”

The FCC told us it had nothing further to offer, but Recode later reported that two anonymous sources blamed death threats for Pai’s abrupt withdrawal.

Pai has been no stranger to controversy over the past year. His name has become near-synonymous with the rollback of net neutrality protections of the internet, a decision that is unpopular among many consumers because of the power it gives internet service providers to create so-called “internet fast lanes,” and to establish paid prioritization among companies that can afford it. The audience at CES was likely strongly opposed to Pai’s rulings.

Shapiro said he wanted to spread the news of Pai’s cancellation as quickly as possible, given two recent cancellations by FCC chairs at CES. FCC Chairman Michael Powell flew to Las Vegas for CES but got sick while there and could not speak. For 2017 CES, then FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler agreed to a one-on-one but withdrew a few weeks before CES.

The FCC is likely gearing up for a tumultuous 2018. After the commission voted in favor of repealing net neutrality, several companies, advocacy groups, and other organizations voiced the intent to sue the FCC. The Commission is in the process of editing the final repeal order, and the wording of that repeal order could possibly end up helping Pai and the FCC combat those upcoming lawsuits. It is not unusual for orders such as this to be released weeks after a vote.

Perhaps due to the unpopularity of Pai’s stances, the session would have likely been well-attended. It’s unclear if it will still go ahead without Pai, or if it will be canceled altogether.

Shapiro said he was optimistic about the future of net neutrality legislation, despite Pai’s recent rulings.

“As someone who lobbied the FCC hard over 15 years ago for the original net neutrality principles, I have watched the recent debates and the hyperbole and believe it unfortunate and beyond reason,” he told Digital Trends. “The internet will be fine with the FCC action, and I think if there is any wrongdoing the FTC and Congress will correct it. I even see some hope that Congress will act, as Democrats and Republicans basically agree on what is fair.”

Only time will tell.


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