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Ajit Pai Wants to Shut Down the Way We Communicate and Organize

Janine Jackson interviewed Jessica Gonzalez about new FCC chair Ajit Pai for CounterSpin.

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Janine Jackson: Regulators who don’t much believe in regulation are looking like a hallmark of the Trump administration. What does that mean for the access to communication and information that’s critical to our daily lives? The newly appointed chair of the Federal Communications Commission, Ajit Pai, doesn’t want to actually eliminate the agency, as far as we know, but what does his record suggest for his term leading what’s meant to be the public’s advocate in the communications realm? Jessica Gonzalez is deputy director and senior counsel at the group Free Press. She joins us now by phone from Los Angeles. Welcome to CounterSpin, Jessica Gonzalez.

Jessica Gonzalez: Thank you.

Like the new administration overall, Ajit Pai has come out of the box with a flurry of things. A number of them came out on a Friday, and sort of went under the radar. I would like to start, though, with the digital divide, which is not a thing of the past, as many people may think. There are still many who, for reasons of locality or of affordability, cannot get reliable internet access. Now, Ajit Pai, I understand, has said that the digital divide is a “top priority” for him. Is that convincing?

I think with Ajit Pai, much like his boss at the White House, we need to really watch what he does and not what he says. He’s talking a really good game on digital divide, but when you look at his history, and also his plans for the future, it tells a very different story. If you look just going back into his past, because he has been on the Commission for many years now, we know that he voted against Lifeline Modernization, and that proceeding is set to bring broadband to millions of poor Americans. He also voted against E-Rate Modernization, to help bring faster internet speeds and internet connections to schools and libraries in poor neighborhoods.

And when you look at what he’s done since he’s been the chairman, he’s spelled out a comprehensive plan that he says will bridge the digital divide, but in fact what it is is tax breaks for wealthy companies to build and to overbuild high-speed internet across the country. And this does not address the main barrier to broadband adoption for poor Americans, which is the high cost of the services. And so he’s worked to undermine Lifeline, which is the only federal program that helps make home broadband access more affordable, and he’s voted against arming schools and libraries with affordable broadband.

Not only that, in the sweeping order that you mentioned in the intro — the Friday news dump, if you will — he actually took a specific action to undercut the efforts of nine companies that were preparing to provide Lifeline broadband services for poor folks. So his actions tell a very different story, and I don’t believe that he has a sincere commitment to bridging the affordability gap.

Let me just ask you about Lifeline. That is a federal program that basically just offers — it’s like ten bucks or something. Can you explain just a little bit for folks who don’t know what Lifeline is?

Sure. Lifeline has been around since 1985. Actually, a few years back, I was personally on the Lifeline program, and it helped me connect to job opportunities, and helped me to actually communicate with the financial aid office at my law school. And so it really is, like it was for me, it has been a pathway already for millions of Americans. And what happened in 2016 is that the FCC modernized the program for the digital age, and made the $10 subsidy available for broadband services.

And this is incredibly important. Our schoolchildren across the country are being asked to learn online, of course. There are tons of services and job applications; something like 80 percent of Fortune 500 companies accept job applications online only. And so being without the internet puts folks at an incredible disadvantage. And this is something people who are already on the internet understand, but it’s also something studies show that people who are offline understand as well. And so we really need to close this divide at once.

I want to direct folks to a report that Free Press has done called Digital Denied.

Well, 16 years ago, I wrote about the then new FCC chair Michael Powell, and he had infamously said of the digital divide: “I think there’s a Mercedes divide. I’d like to have one; I can’t afford one.” He always claims he was taken out of context. He was actually perfectly clear in expressing his sentiment. And the idea is that it isn’t the government’s job to ensure equitable access to communications technology; you just let the market work its wonders.

Now, Ajit Pai I think is maybe too savvy to make that sort of joke, but the approach seems very similar. He’s talked about how the government shouldn’t intervene and muck up the internet. And there, of course, he’s talking about net neutrality, and that’s the largely democratic nature of internet access that’s absolutely crucial to, among other things, organizing. So let’s talk about net neutrality and what the concerns are on that front with Ajit Pai.

Ajit Pai voted against net neutrality in 2015. He’s been very clear that he does not support the legal pathway that the FCC took to get there, and that he doesn’t think that the FCC needs to be involved in keeping the internet open and free. And I think pretty much any cable or broadband consumer understands that the free market is not working in this instance. Many of us have only one choice for how we get access to the internet. And we feel ripped off by our internet providers. We know that they have leverage in the relationship and it’s unfair, and that the government in this instance does have a role to play.

And wonderful things have happened on the internet under net neutrality. People of color who have not traditionally had a voice in mainstream media have been able to tell their own stories. We’ve been able to organize. We’ve been able to make a living. And it’s not just people of color; it’s democratizing the entire way that people share and get access to information.

So it’s incredibly crucial, especially as we resist this administration, that we have access to the tools that we need to communicate and organize. And I’m really concerned, frankly; there’s a pretty clear theme emerging from the Trump administration. We have his spokespeople telling the media to shut up, to not cover issues. We have them covering up facts. And then we have Ajit Pai at the FCC, who wants to undo net neutrality and shut down the way that we can communicate and organize. And so it’s a very troubling pattern, and I think we need to speak up and speak up loudly.

As the internet became so key to organizing, and as media became more understood as a political issue, the FCC kind of came into the spotlight. And the victory on net neutrality, of having the internet declared a public utility — and a federal court has upheld that — was seen as absolutely critical. And yet I also feel that it’s kind of under people’s radar; they don’t necessarily see it as an issue that will affect their ability to organize around healthcare, their ability to organize around policing. You know, media policy has often been a kind of difficult sell in terms of its activist meaning. If Ajit Pai now sort of says, well, Congress has to do everything; the FCC can’t actually do very much, what does that mean for organizing around media policy issues?

Well, luckily, I do think that we’re reaching a critical mass on these issues. I mean, after the John Oliver piece that called out Tom Wheeler and urged him to reclassify the internet as a utility, like you said, we saw 4 million people sending comments to the FCC on a wonky, technical media policy issue. And that was amazing. That was the most comments that the FCC had seen since we saw Janet Jackson’s nipple at the Super Bowl.

So I do think there is a rising awareness about these issues. I think activists from all kinds of different movements — Black Lives Matter, this is part of their policy platform. We see these movements that are mobilizing largely online, and we see amazing organizations, like Color of Change and and 18 Million Rising, that are using the internet to organize for immigration reform and for racial justice and so many other things. We see this rising awareness among activists and their followers that this is an issue that is important, and I’ve been really encouraged by the rising tide of activism. And I do believe — we need to continue talking about this, of course, but this is more, I think, in the public eye than it was a few years back, even.

Let me ask you about one activist victory that I know Free Press was involved in, and the Center for Media Justice and other folks. And that was to cut into the racket, essentially, that phone companies have with prisons. I wonder if you could tell us a little bit about what happened there, because people may not know. But then, also, is that victory also in danger?

I’m sorry to say that the victory is in danger. So what happened was in 2013 and 2015, the FCC visited the issue of the exorbitant rates of prison phone calls, and the fact that some families were paying as much as $17 for a 15-minute call with their inmate or detainee relative. And not only that, that prisons were actually receiving kickbacks from some of these phone companies to exploit the prisoners and detainees. And so it was a really horrendous and despicable practice, and the FCC voted to cap fees that the prisons and the prison phone companies were charging.

And it was a huge victory that was challenged in court. Ajit Pai voted against Prison Phone Justice on two different instances, despite the fact that he acknowledged that this was an unjust system, and that the interests of prisons and prison phone companies may not necessarily align with the prisoners and the detainees. Yet he went ahead and filed a 20-page defense, and parroted the talking points of the prison phone companies. And so right now, the 2015 order is in litigation, and Ajit Pai has refused to defend it.

And so we don’t know exactly what’s going to happen. He did allow an attorney on behalf of the activists a few minutes of oral argument, but it’s really up to the courts. And it’s very discouraging and disheartening, and I think it really goes back to the question of whether or not he is a legitimate advocate for poor and for people of color, who are disproportionately represented in the prison population.

I think that’s one of the areas that folks might not realize that the FCC could actually play a role in. They actually are involved in many things that folks may not know about, and one issue is that they’ve never been a terribly transparent agency. There are public comment periods when the FCC makes rules, but you kind of have to know about them. And another thing that Ajit Pai talked about was increasing the transparency of the work that the FCC does, but then, there again, there seems to be a gap between what he’s saying and what he’s doing. I mean, the pushing out of these orders on a Friday afternoon doesn’t seem to bode very well for the openness of the agency.

I think you’ve put your finger right on the problem. It was just incredible to me, the doublespeak that happened in his first couple of weeks in office. He came out with a splash, saying that the agency needed to be more transparent, and then a few days later, basically taking a note from the Trump playbook, he had several of the bureaus underneath him issue executive-type orders on what’s called delegated authority.

And I have a list here, there’s actually nine different things that he did, but he closed an inquiry on zero rating, which is tied to net neutrality, and this was really just a fact-gathering initiative. He stopped nine companies from providing Lifeline service to their consumers. He killed some guidance on how the agency should look at media ownership limits. He killed an inquiry into flexible use of the electromagnetic spectrum. He rescinded a report on how to improve digital infrastructure. He rescinded an e-rate progress report. And so it’s incredible, he is getting rid of facts that may be inconvenient to his political agenda down the line. And these reports have absolutely no legal or political bearing, it’s just really facts that the agency can use to make reasoned decision-making.

The list goes on and on; I won’t go down, I guess, the laundry list. But it’s really disconcerting; this person is talking about transparency, and in the next breath he’s trying to dump a bunch of stuff that undermines consumer protection — all on a Friday afternoon.

Absolutely. And in fact, you mentioned that he did it on what’s called delegated authority, which means he didn’t have to bring it to the vote. And in fact, the Democratic Commissioner Mignon Clyburn said she had hoped to review some of these things and she didn’t have an opportunity to, they were just kind of rushed out the door before even other commissioners could look at them, which is disheartening indeed.

Yeah. I would really — she wrote a great dissent, and she’s written a number of great pieces, and I would really look to Commissioner Clyburn, moving forward, to tell the truth of what’s going on at the Commission. She’s always stood on the moral high ground and been a fierce champion for consumers, and particularly for consumers of color. And she is the one that I look to at this time to really hold the agency accountable, and she did say she asked for more time and was rebuffed.

Well, do public interest advocates change their tactics at all when you have a kind of, I won’t say a hostile FCC — do you move to the courts more? Is there anything in your approach that needs to change when you’re faced with an FCC like this?

Well, I think our vision of what we want to see for the future remains unchanged. We want everyone in this country to be able to connect and communicate no matter their income level, no matter who they are. Our tactics? We’ll continue to be at the forefront filing comments, filing appeals when necessary. I do think the court system comes into play sometimes a little bit more when there’s a hostile administration, as you put it. But I think really the advocacy, having people, real people, stand up from outside the Beltway and give these industry insiders a reality check. And when I say industry insiders, I mean the lobbyists, but I also mean Ajit Pai, who’s a former Verizon lobbyist.

We really need to stand up and let our voices be heard, both to our representatives in Congress but also the FCC directly. We can’t let this become an invisible agency that sinks under the radar.

And the activism works. It’s incredible. But that’s what we saw in net neutrality, and that’s even what we’re seeing now, that our voices are making a difference, and making it more difficult for them and the administration to undo all of the important consumer protections that we fought so hard for.

We’ve been speaking with Jessica Gonzalez, deputy director and senior counsel at the group Free Press. You can find them online at Jessica Gonzalez, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

Thank you, Janine. Great to be here.

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