Consumer Groups Get Punchy As Biden Team Lags On Staffing FCC, Restoring Net Neutrality
from the taking-your-sweet-time dept
Last December the Trump administration rushed the appointment of Nathan Simington to the FCC, despite Simington having absolutely no real experience or qualifications for the role. That’s because Simington was appointed for two other reasons. One being the silly (and utterly hypocritical if you tracked the net neutrality fights) effort by the Trump administration to try and have the FCC target Section 230, which was derailed by Trump’s election loss.
But the other purpose of Simington’s rush appointment was to ensure the FCC would be gridlocked at 2-2 commissioners. Like the FTC, the FCC is comprised of a 3-2 partisan makeup depending on who controls the White House. And while Biden could have easily appointed a new FCC Commissioner to break that gridlock, we’re now nearing six months into his tenure with no movement on this front.
Granted there are a lot of fires the Biden administration is tasked with putting out. But having a gridlocked FCC during a health and economic crisis where broadband is playing a starring role still isn’t a great look. As a result, a coalition of more than 50 consumer groups and unions wrote the Biden camp last week asking for something vaguely resembling urgency on the FCC front:
“As we move toward the second half of 2021 with no nomination for the fifth and final commissioner, the Federal Communications Commission remains below full capacity, which is incompatible with the goal of delivering open, affordable and reliable high-speed broadband to every home. This is all the more urgent given the fact poor families and people of color are disproportionately disconnected from high-speed internet access, compounding grave inequalities that were made worse during the pandemic.
Given the legislative calendar and the diminishing number of days for hearings and confirmation votes, we have reached a critical point to guarantee the agency charged with ensuring affordable communications access can do its work during your administration. Failing to nominate a fifth commissioner leaves the FCC less than fully operational and limits its capacity to most effectively.
Consumer groups are being overly polite here because they tactically need to be, but there’s no reason for this to be taking this long, even with everything on the Biden team’s plate.
I bring this up a lot, but that’s because I still see a lot of folks who seem to think the net neutrality repeal didn’t really matter much because the internet didn’t immediately implode in a rainbow of color.
But it mattered because the repeal didn’t just kill net neutrality rules, it effectively gutted the FCC’s consumer protection authority, leaving it ill-equipped to police basic things like rampant telecom industry billing fraud. It shoveled any remaining consumer protection oversight to an FTC with limited authority over telecom, and that’s too understaffed and underfunded to tack “hold telecom monopolies meaningfully accountable” on top of its existing, massive workload. It’s precisely why the telecom lobby pushed for this. And the Biden team’s lack in doing anything on this front for five+ months reflects a failure to understand any of this.
This regulatory lobotomization also occurred right before a crisis showcasing the essential nature of broadband for stuff like education, healthcare, and overall opportunity. The ridiculously named Trump/Pai “restoring internet freedom” repeal even tried to ban states from protecting broadband consumers (though the courts haven’t looked too kindly on this last part). Needles to say, the combination of limited competition and regulatory capture isn’t a good thing, and if you think it is, you’ve not spent much time on the phone with Comcast support, or trying to use an aging, expensive DSL line.
All of this also still matters because all of the justifications for the repeal, including claims of amazing job growth and ramped up broadband network investment, wound up being a lie. We effectively gutted oversight of a broken and heavily monopolized US business sector — entirely because a handful of monopolies and their various policy tendrils promised all manner of amazing outcomes. When a long parade of experts pointed out the repeal was based on bullshit and would be harmful, we… ignored them. And when the amazing promised outcomes never materialized… we ignored that too.
And while many insist that Congress should just pass a net neutrality law and end this “regulatory ping pong,” that (usually intentionally) ignores the fact that this telecom campaign-cash slathered Congress is never going to hit the 60 votes necessary to pass a law of any worth. That leaves us with a choice: either an FCC that’s too feckless and pathetic to be able to stand up to AT&T and Comcast, or an FCC that at least has the authority and voting majority to occasionally hold these giants accountable.