with Aaron Schaffer
President Biden has been historically slow to appoint officials to the federal government’s top telecommunications agencies, and advocacy groups say the vacancies are preventing the administration from carrying out key agenda items, such as reinstating net neutrality rules killed during the Trump administration.
Nearly eight months into his presidency, Biden has yet to pick permanent leaders for the Federal Communications Commission and the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration, which together oversee and set policy for the broadcast and Internet service industries.
For the FCC, that’s slower than any president since Jimmy Carter in 1977 — just by a few days — and for NTIA, it’s the longest ever since the agency’s founding in 1978.
The picks have seemingly taken a back seat to other items on Biden’s agenda, from dealing with the coronavirus pandemic to handling the military withdrawal from Afghanistan to grappling with competition concerns in the tech sector.
Only two other presidents, Carter and Richard M. Nixon, went this deep into their first full term without naming or having a permanent chair at the FCC since its founding in 1934. (Harry S. Truman and Lyndon B. Johnson, who took over the presidency midterm after their predecessors’ deaths, kept their FCC chairs after winning full terms, while Gerald Ford never won one.)
That means the agencies are being steered by acting chiefs who experts say aren’t empowered to fully implement long-term policies due to the interim nature of their gigs.
“At the FCC, the chair really has the predominant role in setting the agenda, setting priorities, and while an acting chair can do that to some degree, over the long term, you don’t know the priorities of whoever the permanent chair is going to be,” said Samir Jain, director of policy at the nonprofit Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT).
The vacancies are likely to hamper the agencies as they prepare to disburse funding aimed at boosting Internet connectivity nationwide that is expected to come from the bipartisan infrastructure package making its way through Congress. And they could bog down initiatives to make broadband more affordable and expand subsidies, at a time when the pandemic has laid bare the U.S.’s connectivity gaps.
Pivotally, Biden has yet to nominate a fifth commissioner at the FCC, a set that would give Democrats a 3-2 majority on the five-seat commission and enable them to advance more controversial items with a party-line vote. That includes a surefire Democratic effort to reinstate the Obama-era net neutrality rules, which dictate that Internet providers should treat all Web traffic equally.
The delay is a win for the telecom industry and for Republicans, who have long opposed the net neutrality rules, arguing that such heavy-handed regulation harms innovation and the economy.
“The commission can’t really move forward on that until it gets the fifth Commissioner in place,” said Jain, whose group sued the Trump-era FCC — then controlled by a Republican majority — over its plan to repeal the Internet protections.
More than 50 groups including CDT and Public Knowledge wrote to Biden in June urging him to appoint a fifth FCC commissioner, citing “growing urgency” and a need to “ensure a fully functional Federal Communications Commission.”
Nearly three months later, those groups are still waiting for Biden to announce his picks, and some of them said the absence is becoming more glaring.
“We’ve had a lost year in policymaking because of the slowness of the Biden administration to name a full FCC,” said Christopher Lewis, president and CEO of consumer group Public Knowledge, which backs reinstating the Obama-era net neutrality rules. “It’s probably the biggest missed opportunity we have had in communications policy this year.”
After taking office in January, Biden swiftly designated then-FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel as acting chair of the agency. Evelyn Remaley, who was first named acting administrator of NTIA in January 2020 during the Trump administration, has remained in the role under Biden.
The White House and NTIA did not return requests for comment on the vacancies or their impact. The FCC declined to comment.
NTIA is expected to play a major role disbursing the $65 billion in new broadband funding included in the Biden-backed infrastructure that recently cleared the Senate and is set to be taken up by House lawmakers after the August recess.
The lack of a permanent chief could be particularly impactful at NTIA, Jain said, given that much of the agency’s work involves coordinating with other parts of the federal government, including the FCC and the Department of Agriculture, all of which play a role in broadband initiatives.
“Other agencies can’t be sure that what the acting administrator is saying necessarily will reflect the long-term views and priorities of NTIA down the road once the permanent administrator comes in,” he said.
Our top tabs
California lawmakers are set to vote on legislation that would force Amazon and other major companies to disclose productivity quotas.
The bill would also ban quotas that prevent workers from using the bathroom or taking California-mandated breaks, the New York Times’ Noam Scheiber reports. The bill was passed by California’s assembly in May and the state Senate could vote on it as early as this week.
Amazon spokeswoman Kelly Nantel declined to provide a comment on the legislation to the Times but said that “performance targets are determined based on actual employee performance over a period of time.” The targets factor in experience, health and safety, Nantel said.
Critics have long seized on Amazon’s lack of sufficient bathroom breaks and productivity targets. A National Labor Relations Board hearing officer in August recommended the company redo a high-stakes union election in Alabama. The vote, which Amazon won by a 2-to-1 margin, could have triggered organization efforts at other Amazon warehouses, potentially giving workers leverage to demand changes like breaks.
Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, owns The Washington Post.
A website that collects tips on Texas abortion facilitators didn’t stay online for long.
Web registration providers say Texas Right to Life’s website that invited “whistleblowers” to tell the group about people facilitating abortions violates their rules, Meryl Kornfield reports. The site moved from GoDaddy to Epik, a web-hosting company that has supported sites like Gab and 8chan. But the domain registrar informed the group Saturday that it violated the company’s terms of service.
“We’re exploring various long-term plans for the domain registration,” Texas Right to Life spokeswoman Kimberlyn Schwartz said. “For now, ProLifeWhistleblower.com is redirecting to TexasRightToLife.com only while we move hosts.”
The back and forth came after Texas became the state with the country’s most restrictive abortion law. Those who sue people they suspect of “aiding and abetting” of abortions after six weeks can get $10,000 awards, according to the law.
Social media users also flooded the site with fake tips last week, the New York Times’ Nicole Perlroth writes. But Schwartz said the group was prepared for the fake tips. “Activists have been trying to spam and take down the site for a week and failed,” she said.
A U.K. regulator will push her G-7 colleagues to adopt a simplified web-tracking system.
Elizabeth Denham, the United Kingdom’s data protection watchdog, will advocate for an end to the current state of seemingly endless prompts for consenting to online cookies, the Financial Times’ Madhumita Murgia reports. Under Denham’s alternative, users would tell their Internet browser their online tracking preferences just once.
“I often hear people say they are tired of having to engage with so many cookie pop-ups,” Denham said. “That fatigue is leading to people giving more personal data than they would like.” Denham is “calling on my G-7 colleagues to use our convening power” to address the issue, she said.
Rant and rave
The Financial Times’ Pilita Clark wrote about an investment executive who used Uber ratings as part of his hiring process. The FT’s Emma Jacobs:
Here’s how writer Frances Coppola responded when she heard about that hiring process:
Inside the industry
- UK Innovate at the University of Kentucky, Columbia Technology Ventures, the Center for Strategic and International Studies and AUTM host the U.S. Innovation Competitiveness Summit, which begins Sept. 13.