Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Ajit Pai announced that he leave the agency January 20, when Joe Biden is sworn in as president. This gives Biden at least one commissioner post to fill in his first day in office and, if that choice is upheld, a Democratic majority to deliver on his vision of what the FCC should be and do for the next four years.
Pai’s controversial tenure as FCC chairman was marked by pro-business deregulation that helped media conglomerates grow even bigger while doing little for low-income people who could not afford access to Internet – which has become an even more essential service during the pandemic. Pai has also awarded billions of dollars in grants to broadband companies for providing Internet access to remote locations, an investment of public dollars to bridge the digital divide that Red State lawmakers have found particularly beneficial. .
“It has been the honor of a lifetime to serve on the Federal Communications Commission, including as chairman of the FCC for the past four years,” Pai said in a statement. declaration. “I am grateful to President Trump for giving me the opportunity to lead the agency in 2017, to President Obama for appointing me Commissioner in 2012, and to Senate Majority Leader McConnell and Senate for having me. confirmed twice. Being the first Asian American to chair the FCC has been a special privilege. As I often say: only in America. “
“While we haven’t always been in agreement on policy matters, I have always appreciated our shared commitment to public service,” said Jessica Rosenworcel, FCC Democratic Commissioner, who will likely become the interim president. when Biden takes office. declaration.
Geoffrey Starks, the other Democrat on the commission, released a similar, albeit slightly less formal, document declaration: “President Pai and I may disagree on many policy issues, but we fully agree on two things: the exceptional quality of the FCC staff and the tremendous ability of Patrick Mahomes.
Pai, a Republican, joined the FCC after working for Verizon, a fact he used to happily troll his fellow Democrats who were concerned about Pai’s ties to the company. And since getting a second five-year term by President Trump in 2017, Pai could have remained as commissioner until that term expired, but it’s customary for presidents to leave the agency when A new administration comes into play. The FCC is considered an independent agency made up of five commissioners (up to three of whom may belong to a political party) appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate.
Under Pai, the FCC set out to deregulate industries under its jurisdiction as much as possible and overturn historic Obama-era decisions. The repeal of net neutrality is probably the best-known example of the two.
During the Obama years, the FCC reclassified Internet service providers (ISPs) as common carriers under Title II of the Communications Act, giving the agency more authority over them and requiring ISPs to treat all internet traffic the same. This would mean, for example, that ISPs could not charge more for certain types of traffic or restrict access to certain websites. Pai was a vocal opponent of this policy as commissioner under Obama and repealed it as soon as he could after taking the presidency.
Pai’s reasoning was that such regulations would hamper investment and growth in a booming industry (whether the internet can still be considered a booming industry is up for debate). Pai called for a “light touch frame”, similar to the Clinton administration’s approach decades earlier (when the internet really was a booming industry).
This lightweight framework gave the FCC little recourse when the pandemic struck. The crisis forced millions of Americans to rely more on the Internet than ever before, but they had less protection against increases in exploitation rates or sudden cuts in service. Pai’s initiatives to reduce fraud in the agency’s universal lifesaving service, which subsidizes the telephone and internet for low-income people, made it harder for people who actually needed it to qualify and stay in the program, and its actions reduced the number of companies that could provide it. The Internet service subsidy of $ 9.25 also did not cover the cost of the vastly increased data needs of most people.
Pai’s solutions to these included problems ask broadband companies not to cut off subscribers who could not pay their bills during the first months of the pandemic, and stop, pause temporary unsubscription from the rescue service. However, Pai refused to extend the E-Rate program, which provides educational institutions with highly priced internet and telecommunications services, to private homes that became classrooms when the pandemic closed schools and libraries.
One of Pai’s last acts for the agency will likely be his attempt to use Title II to assert the FCC’s authority over ISPs, platforms, and sites by “clarifying” the section. 230, which grants these services immunity from liability for user content while still allowing Internet companies to moderate that content as they see fit. For example: if someone posts something libelous about you on Facebook, you can sue that user but you cannot sue Facebook. Ironically, this is the opposite of a lightweight frame, the legal justification for which relies on having Title II authority over internet services that Pai decidedly didn’t want and worked hard to remove.
But Section 230 was a favorite cause for President Trump, especially as social media platforms increasingly cracked down on accounts that spread disinformation. Trump was furious, for example, when his election-related tweets and Facebook posts were tagged with fact checks. Conservatives increasingly argue that tech companies are biased against certain political views, though studies showed that social media actually amplifies and spreads conservative content much more than liberal content. Trump issued an executive order in May asking the FCC to dictate which content platforms could moderate, and how, in order to maintain their protections under Section 230. In October, Pai issued a statement saying the FCC would do this. that Trump asked him. With Biden’s election, it is extremely unlikely that this will happen.
Pai’s business-friendly FCC also tried to “strengthen local voices” and modernize media ownership rules by increasing the number of television and radio stations that a company can own and allowing them to own different media in the same market. Some of these rules were invalidated in court.
Meanwhile, a proposed merger between conservative local television provider Sinclair Broadcast Group and Tribune Media Company, which would have placed Sinclair stations in about 70% of American homes, collapsed when Sinclair lied about his intention to sell. stations in order to comply with the FCC. property regulation. Pai was an early proponent of the Sinclair takeover – as it came under investigation for giving the company preferential treatment (he has been erased) – but would end up challenge Trump and vote to block the merger. Sinclair ended up with a record fine of $ 48 million of the FCC. Tribune stations were sold to another company, Nexstar, which then became the largest owner of television channels in the country.
Pai’s FCC too approved the Sprint / T-Mobile merger, which reduced the number of major US mobile operators from four to three. Pai said the deal will speed up the rollout of 5G. He also took a hands-on approach to the Time Warner / AT&T merger, claiming that the FCC didn’t need to review or approve it because it did not involve the transfer of airwave licenses, thus paving the way for the huge media conglomerate despite antitrust concerns.
While Pai’s FCC may not have done much for urban, low-income Americans, it has. provide billions in financing broadband access in rural and tribal communities and – despite delays and inter-agency struggles – start expanding the 5G service across the country.
With Pai’s departure and the term of Republican Commissioner Michael O’Rielly expiring at the end of the year, Biden will begin his presidency with a 2-1 FCC Democratic majority or a split FCC along party lines. It depends on whether Trump’s candidate to replace O’Rielly, Nathan Simington, is confirmed. Simington is considered a major supporter of Trump’s Section 230 executive order and did not appear to be popular among Senate Democrats during his November confirmation hearing. Some Republicans have pledged to vote for him, but the vote date has yet to be set, and there is not much time left.
If Simington is not confirmed, the person appointed by Trump Brendan Carr would be left as the only Republican commissioner on a three-person panel. Carr’s declaration about Pai’s departure was much longer and more detailed than that of the other Commissioners, saying Pai “cares deeply about the digital divide”, thanking him for his “courageous and principled service to the country” and stating that he “would leave behind a [unparalleled] record breaking achievement – one that wouldn’t even fit into his oversized coffee mug.
Open source is made possible by Omidyar Network. All Open Sourced content is editorially independent and produced by our journalists.