Earlier this month, in a classic late Friday afternoon news dump, the Federal Communications Commission announced a rollback of two key decisions made during the Obama administration. In another era, few besides policy wonks and internet activists would have noticed such a thing. But these changes drew intense attention. These days, politics isn’t just what happens on the internet—it’s what happens to the internet.
“Trump’s FCC Pick Quickly Targets Net Neutrality Rules,” the New York Times declared. “FCC blocks 9 companies from providing low-income internet access,” CNN reported. Mignon Clyburn, the only remaining Democratic commissioner at the FCC, published sharp rebukes to the moves, complaining that her colleagues had acted “without a shred of explanation.”
The agency that regulates the internet is becoming as sharply divided as the internet itself.
Of particular concern were a series of FCC decisions made after the election last year allowing nine companies to participate in the government’s Lifeline program that subsidizes phone and internet service for low income families. At first, Ajit Pai, President Trump’s pick to lead the agency, offered no explanation for reversing those decisions. But by the following Tuesday, widespread criticism forced him to publish a lengthy explanation for a move that seemed to fly in the face of his stated objective of closing the digital divide.
The president’s tumultuous first month has brought intense scrutiny and publicity to agencies such as the National Park Service and Department of Education that until now rarely made news. But the FCC’s rise from relative obscurity to big headlines corresponds not just with the Trump’s arrival in Washington, but with the ever-greater centrality of the internet to American life, political and otherwise.
From its start in 1934, the FCC has played a crucial role in determining how Americans communicate and gather information. But for most of its existence, it’s been a boring, technocratic agency tasked with granting broadcast licenses and divvying up the wireless spectrum. It occasionally waded into controversies like obscenity laws, media consolidation rules, or the Fairness Doctrine, but even when decisions followed party lines, they rarely became political firestorms. But these days, the FCC has grown increasingly polarized—and polarizing. The agency that regulates the internet is becoming as sharply divided as the internet itself.
No Middle Ground
This polarization became undeniably apparent during the tenure of chairman Tom Wheeler, the head of the FCC under President Obama. The five-member panel frequently split along party lines on proposals such as cable box reform, privacy rules, and reclassifying internet providers as common carriers akin to utilities. You could blame partisan split on Wheeler for pushing an aggressive agenda opposed by the two Republicans on the panel, but that’s only part of the story.
Wheeler didn’t start out as a friend-of-the-consumer crusader when Obama appointed him in November 2013. The following April he proposed a new set of rules that critics argued would have allowed internet service providers to accelerate or throttle traffic from specific websites. This runs counter to an essential principle of the internet called net neutrality, which states that internet service providers must provide equal access to all websites, content, and applications.
The idea that the FCC might sacrifice net neutrality outraged activists. Encouraged by their success defeating the draconian intellectual property reform bills known as SOPA and PIPA, these activists launched a campaign to flood the FCC with comments opposing the proposal. Even comedian John Oliver joined the cause, dedicating an episode of his HBO show Last Week Tonight to the topic. (He said appointing Wheeler, a former cable industry lobbyist, to head the FCC was akin to hiring a dingo to babysit your kids.) Netflix, Reddit, Twitter, and others throttled their platforms to protest the proposal. Even Obama weighed in. Ultimately, the FCC received a record 3.7 million comments in support of net neutrality, more than the previous record of 1.3 million comments complaining about Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction” in 2004.
Maybe that popular uprising emboldened Wheeler to be the crusader he always wanted to be. Or maybe being called out on national television inspired him to take a more consumer-first approach to running the agency. Either way, Wheeler pursued an agenda more in line with that of consumer advocacy groups, regardless of what the telco industry wanted. First, Wheeler embraced reclassifying internet providers to increase the FCC’s ability to enforce net neutrality. Then, under his leadership, the FCC passed strict privacy rules for internet providers, expanded the Lifeline program to subsidize internet access in addition to phone service, and was set to vote on a proposal that could have ended pay TV’s providers’ cable box monopoly.
Republicans on the commission opposed each of these acts. Not every decision the agency made was so polarizing, of course. But when there were disagreements, critics argue that Wheeler relied on the Democratic majority on the commission to pass regulations rather than finding a middle ground with Republicans. “Wheeler stopped trying to reach compromise with his colleagues,” says Randolph May, founder of the Free State Foundation.
Wheeler has implied that the polarization stemmed from Republican stonewalling. “When I came in, I set up with each commissioner a date every other week — an hour for the two of us just to sit without staff and talk,” he said during an appearance at Harvard Law School last month. “For the last 18, 24 months he [Pai] canceled every meeting. It’s hard to work for consensus when you won’t sit down with each other.”
Pai, who Obama appointed to the FCC in 2012, started reversing those polarized decisions almost immediately after Trump promoted him to chairman. In just four weeks, he has reversed the Lifeline decision, dropped the cable box reform proposal, and looks set to block at least some of the new privacy rules. Yes, most issues the commission votes on remain uncontroversial. But certain decisions remain polarizing. For example, this week the Republican commissioners voted to exempt smaller internet providers from the agency’s transparency rules, over objections by Clyburn. Once again the agency is cleaving along party lines on contentious issues.
At first, Americans of all political stripes supported net neutrality. That changed as Republican lawmakers pushed back. Republican senator Ted Cruz went so far as to call net neutrality a “Obamacare for the internet.” By the end of 2015, GOP voters were less likely than Democrats oppose allowing internet providers to charge some websites extra to for faster speeds. A majority still oppose the idea the idea of fast lanes for the internet, but Wheeler has come to look less like a populist hero in Republican eyes, and more like a Big Government meddler.
Still, you can’t blame petty politics alone for the mess the FCC finds itself in. Debates over net neutrality and cable boxes stem from an ideological shift in Washington. In earlier days, it was “good regulation versus bad regulation,” says Chris Lewis, vice president of the consumer advocacy group Public Knowledge. Now it’s “more regulation versus less regulation.”
No one is well served by regulations that yo-yo back and forth as the political seasons change.
Fair enough. After all, “everyone across the spectrum agreed that Ma Bell should have been regulated,” says May. He’s referring to the original AT&T monopoly, which the government divided into “baby Bells,” including Verizon and the modern AT&T, in 1982. “It’s clearly a different communications landscape now.”
Free market advocates like May argue that the telecommunications sector enjoys robust competition and that the government should step aside to let the market do its thing. Republicans tend to agree with him. But privacy and consumer advocates—and many Democrats—fear increasing consolidation as telecoms buy each other and media companies. Fewer players, they argue, will lead to the erosion of competition and ultimately more restrictions on speech.
The Trump administration has signaled a hard shift in the direction of deregulation, though it may occasionally come down in favor of government intervention when politically desirable—such as in the case of AT&T’s attempt to merge with Time Warner merger. Pai’s outlook is clearly in line with administration. But he, like the president and Congress, have an obligation to the public, not just to the Republican base or to free market ideology. No one, not even the telecommunication industry, is well served by regulations that yo-yo back and forth as the political seasons change. The internet, at least in this case, should really be above politics.