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A Democrat-controlled FCC could mean the return of net neutrality

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Jessica Rosenworcel, a commissioner with the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC), speaks at INTX: The Internet & Television Expo in Chicago, Illinois, U.S., on Wednesday, May 6, 2015. The eveSource: Bloomberg

Jessica Rosenworcel is a native of Hartford, Connecticut, and a graduate of the New York University School of Law. She also served as Senior Communications Counsel for the United States Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, and before entering public service, Jessica practiced communications law in Washington, DC.

She's also been picked by President Biden to serve as the new FCC Chairperson. Her bio shows just how competent she would be if approved for the position, but as acting FCC Chair she's made it very clear what her priorities for the entire FCC would be under her guidance.

We have work to do to put consumers first. We have work to do to support digital equity, especially in communities that have been overlooked and underserved for too long. We need to advance communications policies that keep the public safe and cyber secure. We have work to do to continue our history-making wireless and auction policies that serve as a global model. We have work to do to build bridges and find common ground with our state, local, and Tribal partners.

We have work to do to ensure that our functional equivalency policies live up to our responsibilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act. We have work to do to keep media policies current, while also honoring our longstanding values of competition, localism, and diversity. We have work to do to ensure that all students have the internet access they need for a fair shot at 21st-century success, no matter who they are or where they live. And we have work to do to ensure open, reliable, and affordable broadband reaches 100% of this country— rural areas, urban areas, and everything in between.

Forget Republican versus Democrat for a moment. Forget about companies trying to influence the FCC to gain an unfair advantage for a moment. In fact, forget all the partisan nonsense for a moment: Rosenworcel knows that in America, especially if you compare it to other rich western nations, the internet is broken and we need to strong internet to compete across all things in 2021 and beyond.

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Net Neutrality

Protect Net Neutrality rally, San Francisco

Protect Net Neutrality rally, San FranciscoSource: Credo Action

Rosenworcel has always been a strong supporter of net neutrality. She was there to cast her vote in the 2015 decision to regulate internet service providers as common carriers under the Federal Communications Act, which prevented ISPs from creating those fast lanes that gave their own content preference over the competition and also served to make it easier for municipal broadband services to grow. You bought the best phone. You wanted the best internet for you, not what was best for your carrier.

While the Title II classification was short-lived — in 2017, then-FCC Chair Ajit Pai led the vote for "restoring internet freedom" by ending net neutrality and revoking the Title II status of ISPs — Rosenworcel was one of two dissenting opinions, declaring the voting procedures a "corrupt process" that put the entire FCC on the "wrong side of history, the wrong end of the law, and the wrong side of the American people."

Rosenworcel has not hidden what she thinks of the current state of net neutrality. Or the lack of it.

Rosenworcel has made it known that she is firmly behind the idea of net neutrality, and we can expect close scrutiny on things like zero-rating and outright removal of policies that are even more anti-consumer. That doesn't mean we'll see any immediate change, though.

The new FCC is currently deadlocked in a 2-2 voting split (the Democrats will eventually appoint a third member to give it a majority, but it may take a while), sp the cogs of restoring net neutrality may take a while to get moving.

Still, the FCC has plenty on its plate besides net neutrality, and you can be sure that it will take up other issues important to many Americans. Here's a short list of a few.

Rural Broadband

Rural West Virginia

Rural West VirginiaSource: Jerry Hildenbrand / Android Central

The expansion of rural broadband is an important policy that Rosenworcel is championing. If sworn in as FCC chair, she plans to develop a policy that expands the reach of broadband to schools, libraries, hospitals, and households across the country. She refers to the growing "Homework Gap," where rural America has no real choice when it comes to internet providers, and even rudimentary broadband service can cost more than double what it would in cities with denser populations and more established infrastructure.

There are a lot of places where rural-broadband means shitty DSL from the phone company.

The rural broadband gap needs to shrink — quickly. We quickly learned in 2020 that there is a very deep divide between those who have affordable and strong broadband internet and those who don't, and it affects everything from job prospects to quality of education.

Many rural areas simply don't offer decent broadband service, and others have allowed a single company such as Time Warner or Comcast to establish monopolies. This leads to people (like myself) paying over $150 per month for slow cable internet.

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Changes in spectrum policy and fair auctions can change all of this, especially when a more rural internet-friendly FCC makes it cheaper for smaller regional companies to roll out competitive service. If we want all of our children to have the same tools to learn how to become the next generation of Doctors, Engineers, Lawyers, Chefs, or any sort of skilled tradesperson, this is where we have to start.

Section 230

FCC Chair

FCC ChairSource: FCC

Normally, Congress would be the body to make changes to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. But in October 2020 it was decided by former President Trump and FCC General Counsel, Thomas M. Johnson, Jr. that the FCC would have the authority to interpret how it would be enforced. From the FCC website:

Simply put, the FCC has the authority to interpret all provisions of the Communications Act, including amendments such as Section 230.

We're not going to get mired in how it happened, but it did happen. Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act deals with who is responsible for content posted online, and it gives companies like your ISP or Instagram protections in case you start to talk about things that are illegal. It has nothing to do with the First Amendment, does not stifle anyone's free speech, and only exists to make the author of content responsible for it.

Changes to actual laws should only be made by people who were actually elected. This isn't a left vs, right issue nor is it a can-kicking contest. It's how our government is supposed to work.

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So now one of the bigger things the FCC has to do is figure out what it plans to do about Section 230. Maybe the answer to that question is "nothing." Or maybe the answer to that question is "burn it to the ground." But there will have to be plenty of meetings that cost taxpayers lots of money to decide what role the FCC needs to play and what decisions need to be made.

My prediction, should Rosenworcel be approved by Congress to head the FCC, is that the group will not act on any decree that it should interpret Congressional laws.

This isn't a left or right thing, nor is it a copout thing. The people who have the power to change laws are the people we elected, and it should stay that way. I expect the people who represent me in DC to vote in my best interests and when they don't I expect new people to vote for. I don't expect Congress to kick the can over to a slice of the government that can act on its own will instead of the will of the people.

Should Congress not find Rosenworcel fit to be FCC chair, who knows what a Biden administration FCC would do with Section 230. It's an open, gaping question that could significantly affect the future of the internet.

All in all, Rosenworcel looks like an extremely qualified person to head the FCC and take care of its business, especially as 5G and fiber-to-the-home spreads throughout the country. While some will disagree with her stance on net neutrality and rural broadband policies (especially the spending bits), she's not afraid to let everyone know that she intends to be a public servant who can only try to fix the mess she inherited.

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