Big Telecom and the GOP Are Trying to Sabotage the Biden FCC

With a new Trump FCC appointment, the GOP hopes to mire the agency in partisan gridlock, preventing it from restoring consumer protections like net neutrality.
December 2, 2020, 12:55pm
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Grover Norquist. Image: Win McNamee/Getty Images

The good news? Ajit Pai, the net neutrality killing, pizzagate dancing, giant coffee mug loving FCC boss is headed for the exit after four years of controversy.

The bad news? Activists say the GOP and telecom industry are setting the stage to block Biden from appointing a new boss to the FCC, gridlocking the agency and preventing it from restoring much of the consumer protection authority stripped away during the Trump era.

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By law, the party that controls the White House controls a 3-2 Commissioner majority over the FCC and the top spot at the agency. But some strategic maneuvering by the GOP and telecom industry could prevent that majority from taking shape for at least another two years.

This morning, the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation is rushing to confirm the FCC appointment of Nathan Simington, ahead of a broader vote in the full Senate before the end of the year.

Simington’s a Trump ally who has shown he’s willing to back the President’s heavily-criticized plan to use the agency to dismantle Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, an integral law that protects freedom of expression and innovation on the Internet.

It’s a plan experts have repeatedly warned will undermine freedom of speech online. While Trump has claimed the move is necessary to thwart “censorship” of Conservatives online, evidence of said censorship is nonexistent, and experts say dismantling the law will result in giants like Facebook and Twitter—fearing liability—censoring far more content, not less.

Last August, Republican FCC Commissioner Mike O’Rielly was fired from the FCC for pointing out that the plan was problematic—and the FCC lacked the authority to implement it. Simington, by contrast, wrote the President’s executive order targeting Section 230 and is widely expected to continue to support the proposal if seated at the agency.

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But should Simington be appointed, the agency will face partisan paralysis at two Democratic Commissioners and two Republican Commissioners. Activists tell Motherboard the GOP is likely to then block the appointment of a new FCC boss by the Biden administration, preventing the agency from using its election-earned majority to reverse Trump FCC policies. Potentially even until the 2022 midterms.

The plan was clearly spelled out this week in a letter by Americans for Taxpayer Reform, a right wing 501(c)(4) organization backed by the telecom industry that supported the industry's attack on net neutrality, and routinely targets local, community built broadband networks.

“Americans for Tax Reform urges you to confirm Nathan Simington to the FCC before the end of this year,” Americans for Taxpayer Reform president and conservative operative Grover Norquist wrote to McConnell. “Simington’s confirmation now would ensure a 2-2 FCC at the outset of a Biden Presidency. The FCC could continue to pursue important initiatives on a bipartisan basis, but it would be blocked from jamming through partisan initiatives—whether those involve profligate spending or an anti-growth agenda.”

The problem is that the Trump GOP isn’t known for bipartisan cooperation. Instead, consumer groups like Fight For the Future are warning that Simington’s appointment would likely result in the GOP using its Senate majority to block the appointment of a new FCC boss.

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“Simington’s involvement with Trump’s silly and blatantly unconstitutional executive order targeting Section 230 is alarming,” Fight For the Future Deputy Director Evan Greer told Motherboard.

“He has essentially no qualifications beyond his loyalty to an outgoing autocrat and stated opposition to restoring net neutrality,” Greer added. “If the Senate confirms him, its sole purpose will be to throw sand in the gears, tying up the new FCC for months at a time when the public can’t afford the agency to be kneecapped.”

With an FCC mired in partisan gridlock, consumer groups say the agency wouldn’t be able to engage in any meaningful policy changes that would challenge the telecom industry, making it impossible to restore net neutrality or the numerous media consolidation rules stripped away during the Trump era.

For giant telecom and media conglomerates like AT&T, who’ve quietly thrown their support behind both Simington and the attacks on Section 230, that’s likely the entire point. Telecom giants, eager to elbow in on Silicon Valley ad revenues, have spent years calling for heavier regulation of “big tech,” but little to no real oversight of “big telecom.”

The maneuver would also give the GOP and telecom industry veto power over any policies aimed at tackling the lack of affordable broadband access during the pandemic, such as requiring that broadband providers suspend late fees, stop kicking Americans off the internet for nonpayment, or suspend arbitrary and unnecessary usage caps during the economic crisis.

Should Simington’s committee and full Senate votes succeed before the end of the year, the GOP’s plan would then hinge on the Georgia runoff elections. A win would retain GOP Senate control, all but guaranteeing the party blocks any appointments that remotely challenge the broken status quo.