As attendees of the telecom industry's premier social gathering were escaping the 44-degree chill and entering the Washington Hilton, several dozen net-neutrality protesters chanted outside. Across the street, on an exterior wall of the Courtyard Marriott, the activists projected in giant lettering, "No Slow Lanes. Open & Equal Internet For All."
The annual Federal Communications Bar Association Dinner in Washington and the nearby demonstrations served as a striking visual contrast Thursday night. Inside: Sonoma County wine, shrimp and bacon chowder and stand-up comedy. Outside: handmade signs, earnest pleas and the cold.
“We had a really good turnout, and we are here to greet all of our friendly telecom lawyers and lobbyists as they go into the chairman's dinner,” said Craig Aaron, the president of Free Press, an advocacy group that supports diverse media ownership. At its peak, Aaron, in gloves and a sweater and with a voice scratchy from leading chants, estimated that at least 100 people were demonstrating to defend net-neutrality rules, one of hundreds of planned protests across the country.
“The chairman of the FCC reached a preordained conclusion that he wanted to kill net neutrality,” Aaron said. “And he's not listening to the literally tens of millions of people who are telling him not to do it.”
A spokesman for Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai declined to comment.
Last month, Pai unveiled a proposal to dismantle landmark Obama-era rules designed to ensure that Internet providers such as Comcast and Verizon treat all Web content equally. As the guest speaker of the chairman's dinner, Pai seized on the outrage directed at his plans and others. In a roast of himself and the entire telecom industry, he delivered roughly 30 minutes of jokes to a ballroom filled with more than 130 tables of lobbyists, lawyers and journalists who had just been served bourbon-glazed beef tenderloin.
“First, I want to thank all of you for coming tonight,” he began. “After all, we only have seven more days to use the Internet,” he said, to big laughs and applause in the audience, referring to the Dec. 14 FCC meeting when he is expected to vote alongside his fellow Republican commissioners to repeal net neutrality. “You think I'm joking. It's true. I read it on the Internet.”
While the event, like the White House correspondents' dinner, is typically defined by a jovial, self-deprecating atmosphere, the jokes this year carried added weight as the industry braces for yet another prolonged battle over open Internet rules, consolidation and a megamerger showdown laced with political intrigue.
“The biggest political firestorm had to be when President Trump suggested that we should revoke the licenses of NBC. Of course this attempt to influence us was a nonstarter. Who do you think we are? Antitrust division?” Pai said, to more laughs and howls from the guests. He was referring to President Trump lashing out at NBC and suspicions that his vocal animosity toward CNN contributed to the Justice Department's lawsuit against AT&T, which is trying to buy CNN's parent company, Time Warner.
“In collusion — I mean conclusion,” Pai said in a “Freudian slip” to wrap up his remarks. He then played a mock leaked video of him and a Verizon executive conspiring 14 years ago to eventually install himself as a puppet FCC chairman shilling for Verizon.
Pai choked up while thanking his family. He then ended his speech by relaying an anecdote of voicemails from a consumer's deceased wife being recovered because of FCC work and thanking his colleagues and staff.