In the U.S., we need better internet. We need oversight over Big Tech, ISPs, and other large companies. We need the federal agencies with the powers to advance competition, protect privacy, and empower consumers to be fully staffed and working. New infrastructure legislation aimed at ending the digital divide gives new responsibilities to Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), and Congress relies on the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to reign in Big Tech and others. That means we need those agencies staffed—now, more than ever.
The new infrastructure package gives the FCC and the NTIA a lot of new work to do, including deciding how to allocate a large amount of funds to update our lagging internet infrastructure. In the meantime, we are relying on the FTC to police bad acts on the part of technology companies of all levels. When the FCC under Ajit Pai repealed net neutrality protections, they and the ISPs claimed that the FTC could police any abuse—even though the FTC already has big jobs, like safeguarding user privacy and advancing tech sector competition.
However, none of these agencies can do their jobs unless they are fully staffed. And that means that the Senate must confirm President Biden’s nominees. The consequences of sitting back are significant. These agencies have been given once-in-a-generation responsibilities. Senate leadership should commit itself to fully staffing each of these agencies before they leave for the holidays this December, so that the work on behalf of the public can begin.
Congress must act on four critical nominations at these agencies, by the end of the year, or the agenda for better internet will fall by the wayside. Jessica Rosenworcel should be confirmed to another term on the FCC, as its chair. Gigi Sohn should be nominated to a term on the FCC, as well. At the FTC, the Senate should confirm Prof. Alvaro Bedoya. And the NTIA's work should be supported by confirming Biden's nominee Alan Davidson.
The Incoming FCC Chairman Wants to Fix Internet Access for Children, But Can’t Without a Full Commission
In the middle of the pandemic, children—predominantly those from low-income neighborhoods—were forced onto overpriced and low-quality internet plans to do remote schooling from home. To address this, schools were forced to give wireless ISPs millions of public dollars to rent out mobile hotspots. This provided a “better than nothing” alternative to kids camping out in fast-food parking lots to do homework on wifi. In many places in the United States, this is the product of intentionally discriminatory deployment choices that happened because these companies were unregulated. While too many in Washington DC were busy praising the ISPs during the pandemic, FCC then-Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel made clear we have to do better. The FCC has been given the power to address “digital discrimination” under the new infrastructure law. EFF and many others support an outright ban on digital redlining in order to prevent deployment practices that target 21st century access to high-income neighborhoods while forever excluding low-income areas.
However, both Chair Rosenworcel and President Biden’s FCC nominee Gigi Sohn need to be confirmed by the Senate by the end of the year to provide the Chair a working majority at the commission. (Disclosure: Sohn is a member of the EFF Board of Directors.) The FCC was inactive in 2021 due to its lack of a working majority, despite all the suffering happening in the public. It should be clear that not confirming both Rosenworcel and Sohn would be akin to doing nothing, despite the new infrastructure law Congress passed.
No One Is Addressing Big Tech if the Federal Trade Commission Remains Understaffed
The Chair of the FTC, Lina Khan, wants to improve the competitive landscape in the technology sector. She has written groundbreaking analysis on how antitrust and competition law should be updated. However, her goals remain at risk if the agency is deadlocked with four sitting commissioners, rather than five.
Professor Alvaro Bedoya, a major critic of Big Tech’s corporate surveillance practices, was nominated by the president to fully staff the FTC following the departure of Commissioner Rhohit Chopra. Long known as a privacy hawk, Professor Bedoya is generally inclined to side with Khan on the importance of regulating Big Tech, particularly when it comes to matters involving the corporate surveillance business model. That's why EFF and many civil rights and privacy organizations support his confirmation to the FTC. In essence, Professor Bedoya’s confirmation as an FTC Commissioner will provide Chair Khan with a working majority needed to begin the needed reboot to our competition policies and address consumer privacy when dealing with Big Tech. Preventing or stalling his nomination serves only one purpose—to block those efforts.
The NTIA has been Given a Massive Job to Close the Digital Divide but Has No Leader
Biden’s NTIA nominee Alan Davidson will be given one of the biggest jobs among the new nominees: spending $65 billion to build long-term infrastructure for all Americans. This will be a multi-year effort with a range of complicated issues, guided by an agency that has never had a mission of this magnitude. The NTIA was in charge back in 2009, when Congress passed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, tasking the agency with implementing a much smaller $4 billion grant program.
All of this complicated work remains rudderless until the Senate confirms Davidson as NTIA Administrator to do the job. The absence of an Administrator will greatly hamstring the Biden Administration and the states’ efforts to close the digital divide.
There is a lot of work to be done, all of it important and necessary. And it can’t be done until the Senate confirms these four nominees.