How Mignon Clyburn, the FCC’s Lone Democrat, Is Fighting to Save Net Neutrality
The open internet champion is resisting Republican efforts to undermine consumer protections.
Image: Energy Commerce/Flickr
As President Trump's Republican Federal Communications Commission chief Ajit Pai moves to roll back a variety of Obama-era initiatives, the agency's sole remaining Democrat, Mignon Clyburn, is mounting a vigorous defense of the FCC's pro-consumer policies.
With Republicans now in charge of the FCC, Clyburn faces the unfamiliar task of being in the minority at an agency where she spent years working with her Democratic colleagues to craft the most progressive FCC policies in a generation, including newly-threatened rules protecting net neutrality, the principle that all internet content should be equally accessible to consumers.
During a wide-ranging interview with Motherboard this week, Clyburn vowed to continue fighting to advance net neutrality, as well as her other signature priorities, including expanding affordable broadband access for low-income and underserved communities, and addressing what she calls the "extreme market failure" that forces prison inmates and their families to pay wildly exorbitant phone rates just to stay in touch with their loved ones.
"I'm no longer in the majority, but my mission and my objectives are the same," said Clyburn. "I came here almost eight years ago to ensure that the voices that have not been traditionally heard will have a person representing them. And as long as I'm here, I'll be a voice for those who deserve one."
Clyburn, a 55-year-old South Carolina native who earlier in her career spent more than a decade serving on her home state's Public Service Commission, was appointed to the FCC by former President Obama in 2009. Since then, Clyburn has built a reputation as a passionate advocate for the public interest and a tireless champion of policies designed to close the nation's "digital divide" between those who enjoy internet access and those who lack it.
"Mignon Clyburn is fast achieving heroic status, her voice ringing out in defense of consumer and citizen rights," said former FCC commissioner Michael Copps, who now serves as a special adviser at DC-based public interest group Common Cause. "Whether the issue is protecting the open internet, safeguarding our right to online privacy, or championing broadband for every American, Commissioner Clyburn leads the way."
"I know because I worked alongside her at the FCC and have watched her since," Copps added. "We should all be grateful for her dedicated service."
Clyburn is well aware that she has limited tools at her disposal to resist the Republican effort to roll back many of the FCC's consumer protections. Trump's pick to lead the agency, former Verizon lawyer Ajit Pai, has broad latitude to set the FCC's agenda. That's one reason why Clyburn has taken to Twitter to rally grassroots support for her public interest philosophy using the hashtag #ConsumersFirst.
"Mignon Clyburn's passion for ensuring that communications networks are open, universally accessible and affordable is unmatched," said Gigi Sohn, a top counselor to former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler. "In every action she has taken since she joined the FCC in 2009, the public interest has come first."
For Clyburn, affordable broadband access is not a luxury item like cable television—as some conservative Republicans have suggested—but a necessity of modern life that's essential for economic growth, free speech and citizen empowerment.
"Not having access to the internet is very disabling, it's crippling honestly, for anyone who needs to know what's happening in their community and wants to improve their lives," Clyburn told Motherboard. "If you are unable to have access to the most empowering, liberating, and open platform of our time, meaning the internet, then you will increasingly be behind the information eightball."
Last year, Clyburn led the FCC's push to modernize the agency's Reagan-era Lifeline phone-subsidy program to include broadband access for low-income people, in a move hailed by public interest advocates as a much-needed step toward closing the digital divide. But new FCC Chairman Pai has already begun chipping away at Lifeline by informing nine telecom companies that they won't be able to offer affordable broadband service to low-income people under the program.
Pai's action drew a strong rebuke from Clyburn, who has pledged to continue fighting Republican attempts to undermine the Lifeline program. "Taking steps to ensure that the digital and opportunities divide is closed, has always been a top priority for me," she said at a telecom policy event this week. "That will never change. But what I hope will change, is for affordable communications to be a priority for us all."
"We should not stand silent as consumer protections 'go gentle into that good night.'"
In 2015, Clyburn joined her Democratic colleagues, former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler and former FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, in approving the agency's landmark Open Internet order, which established strong rules protecting net neutrality by barring internet service providers (ISPs) from blocking legal internet content or creating online fast lanes.
The FCC's net neutrality safeguards are now under threat from agency chief Ajit Pai, who has made no secret of his intention to torpedo the rules. (He recently called the FCC's net neutrality policy "a mistake.") Last month, Pai took the first step toward rolling back the rules by voting to eliminate open internet transparency protections for millions of consumers.
In response to that setback, Clyburn vowed to fight to preserve the FCC's net neutrality policy. "This represents yet another in a series of steps being taken to jettison pro-consumer initiatives, and we should not stand silent as consumer protections 'go gentle into that good night,'" she said at the agency's February open meeting, quoting the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas.
Net neutrality is an essential safeguard for free speech in the digital age, in order to protect the First Amendment rights of journalists, political organizers and everyday citizens from government pressure on ISPs to stifle online freedom of expression, according to Clyburn. (Public interest advocates say that's particularly true under President Trump, who has launched multiple attacks on the press, including calling news organizations "the enemy" of the American people.)
Clyburn knows what's she talking about—after all, she used to be a journalist herself. Clyburn launched her career in the mid-1980's working for The Coastal Times, a weekly newspaper in Charleston, South Carolina, where she would eventually hold the roles of editor, general manager, and publisher during more than a decade in journalism.
"I take pride in our nation's respect for its media as a necessary check and balance on all of us," Clyburn told Motherboard. "And I would not have been a part, even a small part, of the media landscape if I did not respect what the media stands for and what its sole purpose is in a fully functional democracy."
"I will continue to press forward to ensure that inmates and their families receive just, reasonable, and fair phone rates."
Perhaps no issue is more closely identified with Clyburn than inmate calling reform. Incarcerated people in state and federal correctional facilities nationwide have long faced astronomical calling rates—in some cases more than $20 for a 15-minute call, according to Clyburn—thanks to what criminal justice reform advocates call "usurious" practices by two companies, Securus Technologies and Global Tel*Link, that control the $1.2 billion prison phone market.
"The inmate calling regime is the greatest and most distressing form of injustice I have witnessed in my 18 years as an industry regulator," Clyburn testified before Congress earlier this month.
Last October, the FCC approved caps on inmate calling rates of 11 cents to 22 cents per minute on both interstate and in-state calls from prisons. (The agency later revised those caps to 13 cents to 31 cents per minute.) Securus and Global Tel*Link promptly sued the FCC, objecting to the rate caps. Securus CEO Richard Smith went so far as to claim that the rate caps would cause "jail unrest."
The case is currently pending in the DC Circuit Court of Appeals. Last month, in one of FCC Chairman Pai's first actions, the agency dismayed prison reform advocates by announcing that it would no longer defend the in-state rate caps. Pai has long argued that the in-state caps exceed the FCC's legal authority. Thus, it now falls to third-party advocates to defend the caps.
But Clyburn is not giving up on her years-long quest to ease the burden of exorbitant prison phone rates on incarcerated people and their loved ones. "Regardless of how the court rules, I will continue to press forward to ensure that inmates and their families receive just, reasonable, and fair phone rates," said Clyburn. "Justice demands it, and so do I."