The Future of Broadband

The Increasing Politicization of the FCC

In the wake of the historic net-neutrality decision, an independent agency is more polarized than ever.

FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai speaks as Commissioner Mignon Clyburn(C) and FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler (R) look on during a meeting of the commissioners May 15, 2014 at the FCC in Washington, DC.
National Journal
Feb. 26, 2015, 2:52 p.m.

The Fed­er­al Com­mu­nic­a­tions Com­mis­sion is no stranger to con­tro­ver­sial is­sues—re­mem­ber the ruck­us over the Janet Jack­son Su­per Bowl half­time show? But net neut­ral­ity has taken things to a new level, and that has people won­der­ing if the agency is politi­cized bey­ond re­pair.

That hos­til­ity was on full dis­play Thursday as the com­mis­sion voted 3-2 to ap­prove sweep­ing net-neut­ral­ity reg­u­la­tions to en­sure all In­ter­net traffic is treated equally. The three Demo­crat­ic com­mis­sion­ers cel­eb­rated an ac­tion that they said would pro­tect In­ter­net free­dom, and the two Re­pub­lic­ans ac­cused their col­leagues of seiz­ing con­trol of the In­ter­net.

Also on Thursday, the Com­mis­sion voted 3-2 to strike down laws in two states re­strict­ing cit­ies from provid­ing In­ter­net ser­vice to their own res­id­ents. The Demo­crats ar­gued that the move would help more people get ac­cess to high-speed In­ter­net, while the Re­pub­lic­ans de­cried the as­sault on states’ rights.

“I do think it is more po­lar­ized than I’ve ever seen,” said Robert Mc­Dow­ell, a Re­pub­lic­an who served as an FCC com­mis­sion­er from 2006 to 2013. “Hav­ing said that, if we’re judging it purely from today, that prob­ably skews the emo­tion of the mo­ment.”

The “game-changer,” Mc­Dow­ell said, was Pres­id­ent Obama’s de­cision last Novem­ber to in­ter­vene in the net-neut­ral­ity de­bate and urge the FCC to en­act the “strongest pos­sible” rules. That state­ment turned the FCC in­to a pawn in a high-pro­file par­tis­an battle, he said.

“The pres­id­ent did not do the in­sti­tu­tion any fa­vors by do­ing that,” Mc­Dow­ell said. “It pulls the mask of in­de­pend­ence off of the agency.”

Re­pub­lic­an Com­mis­sion­er Ajit Pai, who has drawn in­creas­ing me­dia at­ten­tion as the voice fight­ing Demo­crat­ic Chair­man Tom Wheel­er on the net-neut­ral­ity ac­tion, wasted no time Thursday ty­ing the move to Obama.

“The Com­mis­sion’s de­cision to ad­opt Pres­id­ent Obama’s plan marks a mo­nu­ment­al shift to­ward gov­ern­ment con­trol of the In­ter­net,” Pai warned. “It gives the FCC the power to mi­cro­man­age vir­tu­ally every as­pect of how the In­ter­net works. It’s an over­reach that will let a Wash­ing­ton bur­eau­cracy, and not the Amer­ic­an people, de­cide the fu­ture of the on­line world.”

Earli­er this month, Pai tweeted a pic­ture of him­self hold­ing a 332-page draft of the net-neut­ral­ity or­der (in front of a framed por­trait of Obama), and held his own press con­fer­ence in the FCC’s meet­ing room, where he claimed that Wheel­er was mis­lead­ing the Amer­ic­an people about the plan’s de­tails.

Wheth­er the bad blood will spill over in­to oth­er is­sues re­mains to be seen. The FCC, cre­ated about 80 years ago to be an in­de­pend­ent and ex­pert agency for reg­u­lat­ing the com­mu­nic­a­tions in­dus­tries, has nu­mer­ous sig­ni­fic­ant is­sues to tackle in the months and years ahead. The agency must hold a com­plex mult­i­bil­lion-dol­lar air­wave auc­tion that will re­struc­ture both the TV and cel­lu­lar in­dus­tries, and over­see the trans­ition of phone net­works to di­git­al tech­no­logy. The com­mis­sion must also rule on Com­cast’s bid to buy Time Warner Cable and AT&T’s planned pur­chase of Dir­ecTV.

Ac­cord­ing to Har­old Feld, the seni­or vice pres­id­ent of Pub­lic Know­ledge and a net-neut­ral­ity ad­voc­ate, the real cul­prit be­hind the nas­ti­er tone of FCC de­bates is not Obama, but Ajit Pai.

“Pai has been a man of hy­per­bol­ic hys­ter­ics as a way of driv­ing the agenda since he got there,” Feld said, point­ing to Pai’s ad­vocacy against net neut­ral­ity and his ef­forts last year to sound the alarm about an FCC study on con­sumers’ in­form­a­tion needs. Pai called the study, which would have asked re­port­ers ques­tions about their jobs, a “threat to the First Amend­ment.” Wheel­er even­tu­ally pulled the study in the face of a con­ser­vat­ive back­lash.

“When you have a bully, it’s not like you have a prob­lem with the school yard—you have a bully,” Feld said.

For their part, the FCC com­mis­sion­ers don’t think the net-neut­ral­ity fight will pre­vent them from work­ing to­geth­er on oth­er is­sues.

Wheel­er ac­know­ledged Thursday that his Re­pub­lic­an col­leagues have “strongly held be­liefs,” but he in­sisted that he ex­pects fu­ture ne­go­ti­ations will con­tin­ue to be a “col­legi­al pro­cess.” He noted that many FCC ac­tions are still made on a un­an­im­ous basis.

“I don’t see the well as be­ing poisoned,” Pai said. “I hope the chair­man doesn’t bear me any ill will from one item to the next. Whatever is on tap next, we’re go­ing to ap­proach it with an open mind.”

“I look for­ward to con­tinu­ing my friend­ship with Chair­man Wheel­er even if we dis­agree on items,” said Mi­chael O’Ri­elly, the oth­er Re­pub­lic­an com­mis­sion­er.

But he also pre­dicted that the com­mis­sion­ers will con­tin­ue to be bogged down in par­tis­an fights over net neut­ral­ity as they try to in­ter­pret the vague lan­guage in the new reg­u­la­tions.

“My old boss Sen­at­or Jon Kyl used to say, ‘If I don’t ask you to vi­ol­ate my prin­ciples and you don’t ask me to vi­ol­ate my prin­ciples, there’s plenty in the middle we can all agree on,’” O’Ri­elly re­called. “Here, they have not only asked us to vi­ol­ate our prin­ciples, they ran over our prin­ciples.”

What We're Following See More »
FOR IMPROPER SPENDING, INFLUENCE
Trump Inauguration Spending Now Under Investigation
44 minutes ago
THE LATEST

"Federal prosecutors in Manhattan are investigating whether President Trump’s 2017 inaugural committee misspent some of the record $107 million it raised from donations, people familiar with the matter said. The criminal probe by the Manhattan U.S. attorney’s office, which is in its early stages, also is examining whether some of the committee’s top donors gave money in exchange for access to the incoming Trump administration, policy concessions or to influence official administration positions."

Source:
WOULD HAVE CROSSED NATIONAL FORESTS
Federal Judges Nix Proposed Atlantic Pipeline
2 hours ago
THE DETAILS

In a rare rebuke to energy companies in the Trump era, "a panel of federal judges has rejected permits for the Atlantic Coast natural gas pipeline to cross two national forests and the Appalachian trail in Virginia, finding that the national Forest Service 'abdicated its responsibility' and kowtowed to private industry in approving the project. The harshly worded, 60-page decision issued Thursday by three judges from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit is part of a string of legal setbacks for the 600-mile pipeline. The $7 billion project, being built by a consortium of companies led by Dominion Energy, is planned to carry natural gas from West Virginia, through Virginia and into North Carolina."

Source:
PINS KHASHOGGI KILLING ON MBS
Senate Moves to End Support for Saudi War
2 hours ago
WHY WE CARE
REP. POLIQUIN HAD CHALLENGED THE LAW
Federal Judge Upholds Ranked-Choice Voting in Maine
4 hours ago
THE LATEST

"A federal judge on Thursday rejected Republican U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin’s constitutional claims against ranked-choice voting and denied the incumbent’s request for a new election against Democratic Congressman-elect Jared Golden. U.S. District Court Judge Lance Walker ruled that, contrary to the arguments of Poliquin’s legal team, the U.S. Constitution does not require that whichever congressional candidates receives the most votes—or 'a plurality'—be declared the winner. Instead, Walker ruled the Constitution grants states broad discretion to run elections."

Source:
SAUDI ARABIA, ISRAEL, AND THE UAE
Mueller Probing Middle East Countries' Influence Campaigns
5 hours ago
THE DETAILS

Officials working under Special Counsel Robert Mueller are investigating Middle Eastern countries' attempts to influence American politics, and are set to release the findings in early 2019. "Various witnesses affiliated with the Trump campaign have been questioned about their conversations with deeply connected individuals from the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Israel ... Topics in those meetings ranged from the use of social-media manipulation to help install Trump in the White House to the overthrow of the regime in Iran." Investigators are also probing meetings organized by Lebanese-American businessman George Nader, and Joel Zamel, "a self-styled Mark Zuckerberg of the national-security world with deep ties to Israeli intelligence."

Source:
×
×

Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.

Login