Ajit Pai is one of the least popular people in the USA right now, which is quite some achievement given the competition around at the moment.
But under his stewardship, the Federal Communications Commission has already rolled back online privacy rules which now leaves any US internet user not employing a VPN with the knowledge that their ISP can and will sell their online data to the highest bidders.
And if that wasn’t bad enough he is also now looking to roll back net neutrality laws that will empower ISPs to discriminate against internet sites on the basis on how much they pay or what they contain. Just about everyone in the world apart from Ajit Pai and the ISPs agrees these laws are vital, but their demise, at least for the time-being seems to be imminent.
The net neutrality decision is now imminent, with a vote scheduled for December 14th and with Pai widely expected to ignore public and expert opinion on the matter, protests and media coverage on the issue are now widespread.
Pai turns on Apple
But Pai has been on a counter-offence, defending his stance in a series of interviews and speeches across the country. And yesterday, he also wrote an op-ed on the subject for the conservative newspaper, the Washington Times.
And this is where Apple comes in. Because in that article, he has made full use of the astonishing appearance by the Apple CEO Tim Cook at China’s ‘World Internet Conference’, where the world’s most oppressive online censor try to sell their vision of internet sovereignty, mass surveillance, and heavy online censorship to the world.
Pai wrote that Apple was in effect endorsing China’s Orwellian vision for the future of the internet and that they, rather than he are the real threat to online freedom.
“[J]ust this weekend, Apple’s chief executive gave a keynote address at the World Internet Conference in China… What did he say there? ‘We are proud to have worked alongside many of our partners in China to help build a community that will join a common future in cyberspace.’ That is code for a censored internet. And it should alarm anyone who believes in internet freedom.”
Obviously, Pai is trying to conflate the two issues to hide away from the maelstrom that will hit as soon as his net neutrality rollback is confirmed. But it is astonishing that Apple has given the ammunition to do that and it is worth taking a look at just what Tim Cook said in China.
Apple and Tim Cook actually did endorse Chinese internet censorship
Because he stood on the podium in the city of Wuzhen and did no less than praise the Chinese vision of the internet. “The theme of this conference — developing a digital economy for openness and shared benefits — is a vision we at Apple share,” he said before going on to use the words quoted by Pai.
As Human Rights Watch’s Maya Wang told the Washington Post afterwards, “Cook’s appearance lends credibility to a state that aggressively censors the internet, [and] throws people in jail for being critical about social ills…
“The version of cyberspace the Chinese government is building is a decidedly dystopian one, and I don’t think anyone would want to share in this ‘common future.’ Apple should have spoken out against it, not endorsed it.”
So open is China’s vision for the internet that coverage of this very conference and those very words spoken by Cook were heavily censored online. That the CEO of Apple, which claims to care about the privacy and freedom of its users would think it appropriate to even attend such an event never mind say such things there, is incredulous.
But as well as boosting China’s online censors, he also appears to have unwittingly helped the rollback of net neutrality laws too. Because Pai is absolutely right to criticise Cook for what he said, and his words do paint Apple in a very bad light.
A dark time for online freedom
Of course, my mother always taught me that two wrongs do not make a right. But of course, Pai will use this to try and deflect attention from his own attacks on online freedom. He will inevitably leap on anything that can take some of the heat off him.
We will find out on December 14th what the future of net neutrality in the USA will be, and the onus is on all Americans to make their voice hear as loudly as possible between now and then. As for Apple, they have a lot of work to do to justify the appearance of their CEO in China and convince consumers they are not quite so keen on online censorship as Tim Cook’s words make it seem.