By Karl Bode
The Senate today voted 49-46 Tuesday afternoon along strict party lines to appoint Trump ally NTIA advisor Nathan Simington to the FCC. Simington is hugely unqualified, and his appointment sets another new low in the modern GOP’s campaign of sleazy and blisteringly hypocritical politics at the cost of a functioning government or the public interest.
Simington has absolutely no experience in telecom issues, consumer protection, or the other complicated issues facing the FCC. He was nominated because he literally helped write Donald Trump’s idiotic and dangerous attack on Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, and is expected to continue (at least performatively for distraction’s sake) the campaign at the FCC. If you ask Trumpland, the campaign is necessary to stop “censorship” of conservatives online. In reality, that censorship doesn’t exist (in fact reality indicates the opposite). The campaign is really about bullying tech giants into not policing disinformation and hate speech, now cornerstones of GOP power.
While the 230 drama will get all the press attention, Simington’s appointment was rushed through primarily for another reason: to help Mitch McConnell (read: AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast) gridlock the FCC at 2-2 Commissioners for at least the next two years, preventing the reversal of hugely unpopular Trump FCC policies by the Biden FCC.
By law, the party that wins the White House controls a 3-2 majority at the FCC, and gets to appoint the agency boss. But back in August Trump fired Republican FCC Commissioner Mike O’Rielly for some pretty timid comments (correctly) suggesting Trump’s planned attack on social media didn’t make much sense. With both O’Rielly and Ajit Pai leaving the agency on January 20, that left the FCC with a 2-1 Democratic majority in the new year. So despite the FCC attack on 230 now crippled with Trump’s election loss, and despite Simington being an unqualified Trump sycophant, the GOP rushed the nomination through anyway, knowing he would create 2-2 agency gridlock.
Most every telecom expert and consumer advocate I’ve spoken to now expect the GOP, should it retain control of the Senate after the Georgia run off elections, to block the appointment of any Democratic FCC boss with a spine, ensuring that the FCC remains mired in partisan gridlock indefinitely. With Democratic FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel’s term up at the end of 2021, her replacement is likely to be blocked as well, resulting in a GOP 2-1 FCC majority — despite losing the election. Whatever representative democracy is supposed to look like, this sure as shit isn’t it.
The GOP’s ploy is a huge gift to telecom giants like AT&T and Comcast, which don’t want the Biden administration reversing any of the Trump FCC’s hugely unpopular policies, be it the attack on net neutrality, the neutering of the agency’s overall consumer protection authority, or the attack on decades-old, bipartisan media consolidation rules.
Gridlocked at 2-2 or even 2-1, the Biden FCC also won’t be able to pass any COVID-relief efforts that meaningfully challenges the broadband industry (the whole point), be they restrictions on arbitrary and punitive usage caps, or policies aimed at preventing ISPs from kicking struggling Americans offline for nonpayment. Angry voters will then blame the Biden FCC for the dysfunction foisted upon them by the GOP, a story you’ll see playing out across numerous regulatory agencies and policy fights in the coming year as the GOP shifts from Trump sycophancy (and attacks on fundamental democracy) back to obstructionism.
With that as context, Simington’s role as a Section 230 attack dog is largely going to be an afterthought and distraction. Though as TechFreedom’s Berin Szoka notes, that doesn’t mean he can’t throw a wrench into the numerous ongoing litigation efforts related to content moderation:
Thus, an interpretive rule on #Section230 issued this January could well wreck havoc among the courts trying to resolve lawsuits over content moderation for the next four years
For the White House, that would definitely be “owning the libs”
— Berin Szóka 🌐 (@BerinSzoka) December 7, 2020
Still, the primary goal here now for Mitch McConnell isn’t Section 230. It’s protecting the four-year ass kissing the Trump administration gave the telecom industry. An industry every bit as problematic as the “big tech” giants the GOP’s faux-populist wing (Josh Hawley quickly comes to mind) exploits for political benefit. “Big telecom” has waged an incredibly successful four-year campaign exploiting the often legitimate anger at “big tech,” while managing to eliminate most meaningful oversight of one of the least competitive, widely disliked industries in American industry.
Now, with the GOP’s help, they’re hoping to keep things that way for as long as is humanly possible. In a functioning country, crippling the nation’s top telecom regulator in the middle of a pandemic (one showing how affordable broadband is essential for survival) because some lobbyists told you to would be met with real consequences and scorn. Here, if the press can even be bothered to report on what telecom and the GOP are even doing, it will be met with a shrug and around thirty seconds’ worth of attention span.