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Warning Against 'Democratic Version of Ajit Pai,' Groups Call for FCC Pick Without Telecom Ties

"Americans desperately need a return to an FCC that is an empowered advocate for the public, not the telecom industry."

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai speaks at the Las Vegas Convention Center on April 10, 2018. (Photo: Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

A coalition of nearly two dozen progressive advocacy groups launched a new campaign Thursday calling on President Joe Biden to fill the one remaining vacancy at the Federal Communications Commission with an official who is—at minimum—completely unconnected to the powerful telecom industry and fully dedicated to restoring net neutrality protections.

"The Biden administration has a historic opportunity to close the digital divide for millions, ensure net neutrality, and protect consumers against ISP abuses."
—Mark Stanley, Demand Progress

"The Biden administration has said getting people online during the pandemic is a top priority, and if that's the case we need a real champ appointed to the FCC, ASAP—someone who isn't beholden to big telecom companies because they used to work for them. The last thing we need is some Democratic version of Ajit Pai," said Caitlin Seeley George of Fight for the Future, referring to the former Verizon attorney who served as Trump's FCC chair.

Currently headed by acting chair and net neutrality champion Jessica Rosenworcel, the FCC is deadlocked with two Republicans and two Democrats thanks to the Senate GOP's rushed confirmation of Trump loyalist Nathan Simington during the lame-duck session in December. Journalist Karl Bode warned at the time that the GOP and Big Telecom were deliberately "trying to sabotage the Biden FCC" by ramming Simington through in the final days of the Trump presidency.

Mark Stanley, director of operations for Demand Progress, said Thursday that in order to reverse the severe damage the Trump-era FCC inflicted on the open internet by repealing net neutrality and paving the way for more corporate consolidation, Biden must ensure "a return to an FCC that is an empowered advocate for the public, not the telecom industry."

"The Biden administration has a historic opportunity to close the digital divide for millions, ensure net neutrality, and protect consumers against ISP abuses," said Stanley. "It is no longer a question of whether broadband internet access is an essential service. It is, and it is critical that Biden's nominee is someone who embraces this reality and supports Title II classification for broadband."

Progressives cheered Biden's decision in January to elevate Rosenworcel to the acting chair position, but the open internet coalition voiced concerns over some of the possible FCC candidates who have been floated in recent media reports.

The groups point to a January S&P Global story that mentions telecom attorney Edward Smith as a potential nominee for an FCC slot, a role that requires Senate confirmation.

"We desperately need a functional FCC now," the coalition says on its website. "Millions of people are without reliable Internet access in the midst of a pandemic, kids are sitting outside Taco Bell to do homework, and people need to access information about how to get a vaccine."

"The Biden administration," the groups add, "needs to nominate a fifth commissioner who doesn't have ties to the telecom industry and will stand up to the ISPs, who supports reinstating net neutrality, and who will expand broadband and ensure everyone—especially low-income neighborhoods and communities of color who have experienced the greatest harm by the digital divide—has affordable access to the internet."

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