WASHINGTON - After proposing to dismantle net neutrality rules, and setting off a firestorm of criticism, Ajit Pai, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, said his family has become the target of harassment.
During an interview Monday on "Fox & Friends," viewers were shown cardboard signs that host Steve Doocy said were put up at Pai's home in suburban Virginia. One sign, appearing to refer to Pai's children, read: "They will come to know the truth. Dad murdered Democracy in cold blood."
Pai said those signs crossed a line, even as he noted the charged debate over net neutrality. "I understand that people are passionate about policy, but the one thing in America that should remain sacred is that families, wives and kids, should remain out of it. And stop harassing us at our homes."
Last week Pai took aim at the signature Obama-era regulation designed to ensure that all websites are treated equally by internet providers. Under Pai's plan, those rules would be stripped, granting internet providers broad powers to determine what websites and online services their customers see and use. Republicans hold three out of five seats at the FCC. And Pai said he expects the plan to pass at a Dec. 14 meeting on a party-line vote.
Pai has said his proposal would restore a "light-touch" regulatory framework for internet services and would stop the government from micromanaging the internet. Broadband and wireless companies such as Comcast and Verizon applauded Pai's move. But internet companies and activists see the undoing of net neutrality as an invitation for corporate abuse, in which service providers block websites they do not like and charge Web companies for speedier delivery of their content.
"They've listed your children's names on the signs and said that you were an evil man who murdered democracy," said Doocy. "How freaked out were your kids to know that whoever left that there knew who they were?"
"It was a little nerve-wracking, especially for my wife," Pai said.
Pai suggested that the intense criticism leveled at him for targeting neutrality rules can lead to the type of harassment his family experienced. "That's one of the things I think is very unfortunate about all the vitriol and hot air that's out there is that if you keep going out there and peddling this misinformation like, 'This is the guy who is going to break the internet and destroy democracy,' it's not surprising that some people get alarmed by it."
A spokesman for the FCC did not respond to a request for comment about the incident.
Craig Aaron, the president of Free Press, an advocacy group that supports diverse media ownership, told The Washington Post: "We condemn any racist comments or harassing messages sent to the chairman of the FCC. We don't think there is any place for that in the debate." Aaron said his group was not involved in the sign-posting incident at Pai's home.
Critics of the Trump-era FCC have scrutinized the agency's handling of public comments submitted to provide feedback on the net neutrality proposal. Some advocates and officials, including New York Attorney Genera Eric Schneiderman, say thousands of fake or automated comments submitted to the FCC have unfairly skewed the policymaking process. The FCC has said that it lacks the resources to review every comment and that automated feedback came from both opponents of net neutrality and supporters.
While the criticism over fake comments may not alter the commission's upcoming vote to repeal the rules, some experts say it may benefit supporters of the rules in any legal challenge to the FCC's plan.