FCC’s Mignon Clyburn Takes Net Neutrality to Skid Row

Tents lined a sidewalk on Los Angeles’ Skid Row in front of a small meeting hall where FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn spoke earlier this month to a group of community activists, a number of them homeless.

Several signs on the wall pictured a hand holding a smartphone and the message “Net neutrality is a racial justice issue.”

“I shouldn’t be the first or last commissioner to come here,” Clyburn told them before urging them to file comments on the FCC’s website on the latest effort to overhaul the rules of the road for the Internet.

Skid Row is a bit of an incongruous place to take the fight over net neutrality — an issue fought largely in D.C. policy circles, on social media and via a few well-organized Washington street demonstrations. But Clyburn, the sole Democrat left on the FCC, is aiming to draw attention to the issue as the Republican majority takes its first steps to crack the foundation of the FCC’s existing rules.

Last week, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai and Commissioner Michael O’Rielly, both Republicans, voted in favor of starting the process to repeal the FCC’s 2015 order that reclassifies internet service as a Title II utility.

That reclassification has allowed the FCC to impose robust net neutrality rules that prohibit internet providers from discriminating in the way they deliver content from different sources to consumers.

Without Title II, net neutrality advocates say that the rules would ultimately be too weak to prevent discrimination.

At the Skid Row meeting, sponsored by a collection of advocacy groups called the Voices for Internet Freedom Coalition, the intricacies of FCC policy give way to broader arguments of why the internet has become a necessity.

Speakers presented a variety of concerns, from struggles to find Wi-Fi to worries about the privacy of information to the hassles of merely finding a place to charge their phones. Others talked of blogging as a way to have a voice. “If we are not recognized on the internet, then we have no identity,” one woman said.

“She was the conscience of the commission.”
Former FCC chief Tom Wheeler on Clyburn

After listening to their remarks, Clyburn summed things up succinctly: “People should not have to choose between paying their water bills, paying their rent, eating and being connected.” In other words, the internet is like a utility — which is at the crux of the current debate.

Pai, too, said he has made it a priority to close the “digital divide,” but he believes the current regulation has been an impediment to investment to build out networks. “These utility-style regulation …were and are like the proverbial sledgehammer being wielded against the flea — except there was no flea,” he said at last week’s meeting.

He has the votes to roll back the 2015 order — and most expect him to do so.

But the FCC first will go through a public comment period in which anyone can weigh in. Back in 2014 and 2015, about 4 million people did so, setting a record. This month, more than 2 million have done likewise, thanks in part to a recent segment on John Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight,” over which Clyburn admitted to laughing so hard “I heard probably only three-quarters of what he said.” The segment triggered a flood of comments to the FCC on the issue.

Clyburn calls broadband “the greatest equalizer of our time.” To her, the debate over net neutrality is linked to equal access to internet service. During her tenure on the FCC, she has been pushing for expansion of a program to provide lower-cost broadband service to low-income communities.

“We could think of nowhere else than Skid Row to really call attention to where the challenges are,” she says in an interview. “It is very expensive and taxing to be low income and to be economically disadvantaged. Very often times they don’t have the wherewithal to find out about decisions” made by the federal government.

The daughter of Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., part of the Democrats’ congressional leadership, Mignon spent the early part of her career running The Coastal Times, a newspaper that her father, frustrated with local media’s lack of coverage of the black community, started.

“As opposed to complain about it, he opened up his own wallet,” Clyburn recalls, adding that “what he told us is, if you see something as ‘less than,’ then you come up” with a solution. She says that the experience at The Coastal Times showed her the value of an independent media, even human interest stories that would never be on the radar screens of larger outlets.

After more than a decade at the paper, she served on the Public Service Commission of South Carolina, including two years as chair, before President Obama tapped her for the FCC in 2009. She’s also the first, and so far only, woman to sit atop the FCC — serving as acting chair in 2013 until the Senate confirmed Obama’s nominee, Tom Wheeler.

Wheeler says Clyburn “was the conscience of the commission when I was there” and points to her move, as acting chair, to crack down on excessive rates charged by inmate calling services.

“That was a bold and important act that, of course, the Trump FCC has quickly moved against,” Wheeler says. “I think everyone expected her to be a caretaker interim chair; she fooled all of them and cut her own swath.”

During that period, Clyburn also helped hash out an agreement to make AT&T spectrum interoperable with smaller carriers, among other things.

When it comes to net neutrality, Wheeler said that it has been “refreshing to watch Commissioner Clyburn call out the contradictions between what was said and done by the Republicans two years ago and how they are driving to a preconceived conclusion today.”

Last week, Pai insisted that “this is the beginning of the process, not the end.” He said that after the public comments are in, “the FCC will follow the facts and the law where they take us.”

Clyburn’s term expires at the end of June, but she can stay on until Trump nominates and the Senate confirms a successor or, if that doesn’t happen, until the end of 2018 at the latest.

She says that “unless I hear from the powers that be, I will serve out my term.” That’s important for the FCC, which currently has two vacancies. If she were to depart, it will be left without a quorum until the Senate confirms Trump’s nominees for the spots.

She says she has no plans yet for what she will do after she leaves the FCC, other than that she wants to focus on some of the same issues she has on the commission. From time to time there have been rumors that she would enter elective politics, and perhaps run for her father’s seat, but she isn’t addressing that prospect.

“I really care about this agency,” she says. “I might not agree with everything [it’s doing] right at this moment. But when the agency is focused on this mission, it has an incredible opportunity to make America a better place.”

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