Tech by VICE

Trump Taps Democrat Rosenworcel for FCC, But That Won’t Save Net Neutrality

No, Donald Trump hasn’t had a “come-to-Jesus” moment about the open internet.

by Sam Gustin
Jun 14 2017, 6:33pm

Jessica Rosenworcel speaking in 2015. Image: C-SPAN

President Trump intends to nominate open internet champion Jessica Rosenworcel for a second stint at the Federal Communications Commission, the White House announced late Tuesday, but it's not because Trump suddenly supports net neutrality, the internet's open access principle.

Rather, Trump is obliged by federal law and FCC tradition to ensure that no more than three out of the agency's five commissioners are members of his own political party, in this case the Republicans. Rosenworcel's renomination is a safe choice for Trump, and a helpful boost for GOP lawmakers as they try to push Trump's unpopular legislative agenda through Congress.

In particular, Rosenworcel's renomination may help smooth passage of a major wireless spectrum bill pushed by Sen. John Thune, the South Dakota Republican, according to DC tech policy sources. GOP lawmakers held up Rosenworcel's renomination last year over a partisan Senate battle over this bill and other tech policy legislation. That impasse appears to have broken.

Rosenworcel, who previously served as a FCC commissioner under former President Obama, is a widely respected advocate for internet openness and broadband access. A 45-year-old former Senate staffer, she's built a reputation as a super-smart and passionate regulator with a deep concern for addressing the "digital divide," especially for children.

"We don't get a lot of good news in communications policy these days, but the fact that Jessica will be returning to the Federal Communications Commission, if confirmed by the Senate, is really good news," former FCC commissioner Michael Copps, who now serves as a special adviser at DC-based public interest group Common Cause, told Motherboard in a phone interview.

If confirmed by the Senate for another five-year term, Rosenworcel would join a federal agency in the midst of a profound transformation, as Trump's FCC chief Ajit Pai tries to rein in the agency's ambitions after what he and his GOP allies in Congress describe as a period of regulatory overreach during the Obama years. Rosenworcel's renomination process is likely to take months, which means that she's unlikely to have a material impact on the FCC's ongoing net neutrality review.

"I congratulate Jessica Rosenworcel on the announcement that President Trump will nominate her to serve another term on the Federal Communications Commission," Pai said in a statement. "She has a distinguished record of public service, including the four-and-a-half years we worked together at this agency, and I look forward to working with her once again to advance the public interest."

During her tenure from 2012 to 2016, Rosenworcel's signature issue was what she calls the "Homework Gap," which refers to the lack of affordable home internet access for low-income children. In 2015, she helped spearhead an initiative to expand the FCC's Lifeline subsidy program, which for decades has helped low-income people afford phone service, to include broadband internet access.

Although Rosenworcel regularly voted with her two Democratic FCC colleagues, former Chairman Tom Wheeler and current Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, she often displayed an independent streak, such as when she refused to sign on to the FCC's "set-top box" reform, which would have opened the video market up to greater competition, angering some public interest groups. Nevertheless, Rosenworcel is highly respected by many public internet advocates.

"Jessica Rosenworcel has served with distinction at the FCC and, before that, on Capitol Hill," Andrew Schwartzman, Benton Senior Counselor at the Public Interest Communications Law Project at Georgetown University Law Center's Institute for Public Representation, said in an email. "I look forward to her zealous advocacy for universal broadband deployment, especially for younger Americans."

Brendan Carr, a Republican who currently serves as general counsel at the FCC, is widely expected to be Trump's choice to fill the third GOP seat at the agency, in addition to Pai and his colleague Mike O'Rielly, as first reported by Recode. A White House statement announcing Carr's nomination is expected within days, according to multiple DC tech policy sources.

Rosenworcel did not immediately return a request for comment on her renomination from Motherboard.