Federal Communications Commission (FCC) chair Ajit Pai has announced that he will leave the agency on January 20, when Joe Biden is sworn in as president. This gives Biden at least one commissioner slot to fill on his first day in office and, should that choice be confirmed, a Democrat majority to fulfill his vision of what the FCC should be and do for the next four years.
Pai’s controversial tenure as FCC chair has been marked by business-friendly deregulation that helped media conglomerates get even bigger while doing little for lower-income people who couldn’t afford internet access — which has become an even more essential service during the pandemic. Pai also awarded billions of dollars in subsidies to broadband companies for providing internet access to remote locations, an investment of public dollars to close the digital divide that red state lawmakers found especially beneficial.
“It has been the honor of a lifetime to serve at the Federal Communications Commission, including as Chairman of the FCC over the past four years,” Pai said in a statement. “I am grateful to President Trump for giving me the opportunity to lead the agency in 2017, to President Obama for appointing me as a Commissioner in 2012, and to Senate Majority Leader McConnell and the Senate for twice confirming me. To be the first Asian-American to chair the FCC has been a particular privilege. As I often say: only in America.”
“While we did not always agree on policy matters, I always valued our shared commitment to public service,” Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democratic FCC commissioner who is likely to become the acting chair when Biden takes office, said in a statement.
Geoffrey Starks, the other Democrat on the commission, issued a similar if slightly less formal statement: “Chairman Pai and I may disagree on many policy issues, but we are in full agreement about two things: the outstanding quality of the FCC’s staff and the tremendous abilities of Patrick Mahomes.”
Pai, a Republican, joined the FCC after working for Verizon, a fact he used to gleefully troll his Democratic colleagues who were concerned about Pai’s ties to the company. And since he’d been granted a second five-year term by President Trump in 2017, Pai could have stayed on as a commissioner until that term expired, but it’s customary for chairs to leave the agency when a new administration comes in. The FCC is considered to be an independent agency with five commissioners (no more than three of whom can be from one political party) who are nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate.
Under Pai, the FCC set about deregulating the industries under its purview as much as possible and reversing landmark Obama-era decisions. The net neutrality repeal is probably the most well-known example of both.
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 forcing ISPs to treat all internet traffic the same. That would mean, for instance, that ISPs couldn’t charge more for certain types of traffic or restrict access to certain websites. Pai was a vocal opponent of this policy as a commissioner under Obama, and repealed it as soon as he possibly could after taking over as chair.
Pai’s reasoning was that such regulations would hamper investment and growth in a burgeoning industry (whether or not the internet can still be considered a burgeoning industry is up for debate). Pai called for a “light touch framework,” akin to the Clinton administration’s approach from decades earlier (when the internet truly was a burgeoning industry).
This light-touch framework gave the FCC little recourse when the pandemic hit. The crisis left millions of Americans to rely on the internet more than ever, but they had fewer protections from exploitive rate increases or sudden service cuts. Pai’s initiatives to reduce fraud in the agency’s universal lifeline service, which subsidizes phone and internet for lower-income people, made it harder for people who actually needed it to qualify for and stay in the program, and his actions reduced the number of companies that could provide it. The $9.25 internet service subsidy also didn’t cover the cost of most people’s vastly increased data needs.
Pai’s solutions to these problems included asking broadband companies not to cut off subscribers who couldn’t pay their bills during the first few months of the pandemic, and to pause lifeline service de-enrollment temporarily. However, Pai refused to extend the E-Rate program, which gives educational institutions heavily discounted internet and telecommunications services, to the private homes that became classrooms when the pandemic shut schools and libraries down.
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 internet service providers, platforms, and sites by “clarifying” Section 230, which gives those 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 defamatory about you on Facebook, you can sue that user but you can’t sue Facebook. Ironically, this is the opposite of a light-touch framework, the legal justification for which rests on having a Title II authority over internet services that Pai decidedly didn’t want and worked hard to remove.
But Section 230 was a pet cause of President Trump, especially as social media platforms increasingly cracked down on accounts that spread misinformation. Trump was enraged, for instance, when his election-related tweets and Facebook posts were labeled with fact-checks. Conservatives have increasingly asserted that tech companies are biased against certain political viewpoints, although studies have shown that social media actually amplifies and spreads conservative content far more than liberal content. Trump issued an executive order in May asking the FCC to dictate what content platforms could moderate and how, in order to keep their Section 230 protections. In October, Pai issued a statement saying the FCC would do as Trump asked. With Biden’s election, it’s exceedingly unlikely this will happen.
Pai’s business-friendly FCC also tried to “strengthen local voices” and modernize media ownership rules by increasing how many television and radio stations one company may own and allowing them to own different media outlets in the same market. Some of these rules were struck down in court.
Meanwhile, a proposed merger between conservative local television provider Sinclair Broadcast Group and Tribune Media Company, which would have put Sinclair stations in roughly 70 percent of American homes, fell apart when Sinclair lied about its plans to sell off stations in order to comply with FCC ownership regulations. Pai was an initial proponent of the Sinclair takeover — to the extent that he was investigated for showing preferential treatment to the company (he was cleared) — but would ultimately defy Trump and vote to block the merger. Sinclair ended up with a record $48 million fine from the FCC. Tribune’s stations were sold to a different company, Nexstar, which then became the largest television station owner in the country.
Pai’s FCC also approved the Sprint/T-Mobile merger, which decreased the number of major American wireless carriers from four to three. Pai said the deal would speed up the rollout of 5G. He also took a hands-off approach to the Time Warner/AT&T merger, saying the FCC didn’t need to review or approve it because it didn’t involve the transfer of airwave licenses, effectively clearing the way for the massive media conglomerate despite the Department of Justice’s antitrust concerns.
While Pai’s FCC may not have done much for urban and lower-income Americans, it did provide billions in funding for access to broadband in rural and tribal communities and — despite delays and interagency fights — eventually begin to expand 5G service across the country.
With Pai’s departure and Republican commissioner Michael O’Rielly’s term expiring at the end of the year, Biden will either begin his presidency with a 2-1 Democrat majority FCC or an FCC split along party lines. That depends on if Trump’s nominee to replace O’Rielly, Nathan Simington, is confirmed. Simington is seen as a major proponent of Trump’s Section 230 executive order and didn’t seem to be popular among Senate Democrats in his November confirmation hearing. Some Republicans have committed to voting for him, but a date for the vote has not yet been scheduled, and there isn’t much time left.
Should Simington not be confirmed, Trump appointee Brendan Carr would be left as the sole Republican commissioner on a three-person panel. Carr’s statement about Pai’s departure was significantly longer and more detailed than the other commissioners’, saying that Pai “cares deeply about the digital divide,” thanking him for his “courageous and principled service to the country,” and saying he would “leave behind an [unparalleled] record of accomplishments — one that would not even fit in his oversized coffee mug.”
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