“We don’t need the FCC,” Trump’s FCC transition advisor recently wrote.
Image: Gage Skidmore / Flickr
Under President Donald Trump, the US government's policy protecting net neutrality, the principle that all internet content should be equally accessible to consumers, is likely to be rolled back, according to tech policy experts.
But that shift, as important as it would be, may be just the beginning of the changes in store for the Federal Communications Commission under Trump's administration. In fact, the nation's top communications regulator itself may look very different than it does today.
Like, very different. As in, practically non-existent.
That was the prospect raised recently by one of the two men that Trump has selected to advise him on FCC matters ahead of the billionaire mogul's January inauguration.
In an October blog post for the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) tech policy website, Mark Jamison, a University of Florida professor and Visiting Fellow at the conservative think-tank, floated the idea of essentially abolishing the FCC except for its most basic radio spectrum licensing function.
Under such a scenario, the FCC would no longer protect internet openness, promote cable and wireless competition, ensure broadband privacy protections, rein in exploitative prison phone costs, or encourage deployment of internet access around the country, especially in low-income, rural and underserved communities.
All of these functions are either unnecessary, or could be farmed out to other federal agencies or the states, according to Jamison.
"Telecommunications network providers and ISPs are rarely, if ever, monopolies," Jamison asserted. "If there are instances where there are monopolies, it would seem overkill to have an entire federal agency dedicated to ex ante regulation of their services. A well-functioning Federal Trade Commission (FTC), in conjunction with state authorities, can handle consumer protection and anticompetitive conduct issues."
"The only FCC activity that would seem to warrant having an independent agency is the licensing of radio spectrum," he added. "Thus, at the end of the day, we don't need the FCC, but we still need an independent agency."
It sounds drastic, but such a move would be consistent with the small-government, anti-regulatory philosophy championed by AEI and other so-called "free market" groups—a philosophy that appears to be ascendent judging by the advisors that Trump has assembled as he prepares to assume the presidency.
"I'm not sure that Trump will want to dismantle the very regulatory agency that will allow him to browbeat the media."
On the other hand, it's not at all clear that Jamison's plan will be met with wholehearted favor by President Trump, according to Harold Feld, Senior Vice President at DC-based digital rights group Public Knowledge.
"This is a radical conservative agenda that is utterly out of the mainstream," Feld told Motherboard. "Besides, I'm not sure that Trump will want to dismantle the very regulatory agency that will allow him to browbeat the media."
Jamison is an arch-conservative telecom wonk who was previously a regulatory policy official at wireless giant Sprint, and he has railed in the past against proposals to expand broadband access to low-income and underserved communities, claiming such plans would be a "waste" of resources that would harm the economy.
Jamison's partner advising Trump on the FCC transition is Jeffrey Eisenach, a right-wing economist who is also affiliated with AEI, where he directs the group's Center for Internet, Communications, and Technology Policy. Eisenach has done consulting work for broadband titan Verizon and is vehemently opposed to the FCC's strong net neutrality rules.
The FCC's net neutrality policy, which is enshrined in the agency's landmark 2015 Open Internet order, prohibits internet service providers like Comcast, Verizon, and AT&T from blocking or discriminating against rival content. In practice, this means that these broadband giants can't slow content and services from the likes of Netflix or Skype, which directly compete with them in the video and communications markets.
Public interest groups say that net neutrality is necessary to maintain the internet as an open platform for free speech, economic growth, and civic empowerment. But the nation's largest broadband companies and their Republican allies in Congress argue that the FCC's rules amount to a government overreach, and they've been trying to kill the policy ever since it was enacted. With a Trump-led Republican FCC takeover in sight, they may soon succeed.
Already, Trump's election victory has essentially halted the current FCC's work on major issues. Last week, the agency abruptly deleted the most important items from its monthly meeting agenda, after Republican lawmakers warned FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler to avoid working on "partisan, or otherwise controversial items that the new Congress and new Administration will have an interest in reviewing."
As a practical matter, that means the remaining big-ticket items on Wheeler's pro-consumer agenda, including a plan to break the cable industry's stranglehold on the video "set-top box" market, and a measure to rein in broadband costs for schools, libraries and hospitals, are now dead.
Open internet advocates reacted with alarm to Jamison's proposal to abolish most of the FCC. "Such a proposal is dripping with irony, given that the dominant ISPs consistently rank among the most hated companies by consumers, ripping off their subscribers in numerous creative ways," Lauren Weinstein, a veteran tech policy expert and net neutrality advocate, told Motherboard. "One of the few checks on their abuses has been the FCC."
"Reducing the FCC's authority in this context would be a sure path toward the rich getting richer and subscribers being shafted even worse than they are today," Weinstein added.
A FCC spokesperson declined to comment on Jamison's proposal.