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Trump's FCC Pats Itself On Back For Historically Stupid Year

1As anyone vaguely aware of industry news over the past year has no doubt noticed, Trump's FCC, led by Ajit Pai, hasn't been particularly beneficial to either the internet or the average consumers. I has, however, helped to sooth frightened media monopolies.

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Guest post by Karl Bode from Techdirt

If you've been playing along at home, Trump's FCC hasn't been particularly kind to consumers, competition, or the health of the internet. It has, however, been a massive boon to major ISPs terrified of disruption and competition, especially those looking to forge new media monopolies where they dominate both the conduit -- and the content -- coming to the home.

Under Pai, the FCC has gutted broadband programs for the poor, protected the cable industry's monopoly over the cable box from competition, made it easier for prison phone monopolies to rip off inmate families, dismantled generations old media consolidation rules simply to aid Sinclair Broadcasting's merger ambitions, killed meaningful broadband privacy protections, tried to weaken the standard definition of broadband (to help hide competition gaps) and weakened rules preventing business broadband and backhaul monopolies from abusing smaller competitors, hospitals, or schools.

And that's before you even get to Pai's attack on net neutrality, potentially one of the least popular tech policy decisions in the history of the modern internet. That entire calamity is a universe unto itself, with the FCC currently under investigation for turning a blind eye to identity theft and fraud during the open comment period, as well as for bizarrely making up a DDOS in a ham-fisted attempt to downplay the public's disdain for Pai's agenda. It will take many years and numerous lawsuits for the problems with Pai's rushed repeal of the rules to fully materialize.

With Pai's tenure seen as a shitshow in the wake of the net neutrality repeal, the FCC recently tried to undertake an image reclamation effort. That came in the form of a press release (pdf) lauding what the FCC calls a "year of action and accomplishment" in terms of "protecting consumers," "promoting investment," and "bridging the digital divide." You just know the FCC under Pai is doing a good job because, uh, graphics:

Amusingly, the lion's share of the agency's listed "accomplishments" were noncontroversial projects simply continued from the last FCC under Tom Wheeler. That includes efforts to open additional spectrum for wireless use, attempts to speed up cell tower placement, or ongoing efforts to reduce robocalls (the impacts of which aren't apparent). Many of the listed efforts are just the FCC doing its job, ranging from conducting an investigation into the recently botched Hawaii ballistic missile snafu, to "approving new wireless charging tech" that nobody thought should be blocked anyway.

Elsewhere, the agency's accomplishment list engages in willful omission. For example, while the FCC pats itself on the back for creating a "broadband deployment advisory council," it ignores the fact that said counsel is plagued by allegations of cronyism and dysfunction in the wake of recent resignations. The FCC similarly pats itself on the back for the agency's Puerto Rico hurricane response, despite the fact that locals there say the federal government and the FCC failed spectacularly in its response to the storm.

But it's the agency's claims of consumer protection that continue to deliver the best unintentional comedy. As you might expect, Pai's FCC continues to claim that killing net neutrality rules was a good thing because the rules devastated sector investment, a proven lie the agency simply can't stop repeating:

"Voted to restore the longstanding, bipartisan light-touch regulatory framework that fostered rapid Internet growth, openness, and freedom for nearly 20 years. This action reversed the FCC’s 2015 imposition of heavy-handed Title II utility-style government regulation on Internet providers that discouraged investment in next-generation networks.

Another "accomplishment" cited by the FCC is its decision to kill a net neutrality investigation into AT&T and Verizon's abuse of zero rating (exempting select content from usage caps if companies pay more). The previous FCC was just about to ding both companies for exempting their own content from usage caps, having noted how caps can be used as an anti-competitive weapon, driving up costs for consumers and competitors alike. Trump's FCC is not only proud to have killed that inquiry, but insists doing so helps the nation's poor:

"Free Consumer Data—Ended a 2016 investigation into wireless carriers’ free-data offerings. These free-data plans have proven to be popular among consumers, particularly low-income Americans, and have enhanced competition in the wireless marketplace."

The accomplishment list pays heavy lip service to the agency's efforts to "close the digital divide," a goal we've repeatedly noted is consistently undermined by other agency policies like killing net neutrality or the FCC's privacy rules (which could have prevented ISPs from charging you more for privacy). For example Pai's FCC is slowly dismantling Lifeline, a modest $10 per month telecom subsidy for poor people begun by Reagan and expanded under Bush Jr. The FCC is also working overtime to protect the sector from competition on both the business and residential sectors.

Over and over, the FCC's accomplishment list conflates cronyism with consumer welfare. For example, the FCC's self-congratulatory missive crows about the agency having:

"Adopted an order relieving unnecessary regulation in areas where business data services are delivered competitively in order to promote facilities-based investment."

What the FCC actually did is notably different. In reality, the FCC eliminated price caps for broadband data services (BDS), where AT&T and Verizon enjoy a monopoly over the bandwidth used to feed everything from ATMs to cell towers. Not only that, Pai's FCC weakened the definition of "competitive" in this sector to aid these monopolies, declaring a business served by "competitive broadband" if there's one ISP within a half mile. The end result? Higher prices than ever for the small businesses, schools, hospitals and others left without affordable connectivity options.

The FCC's accomplishment list routinely and repeatedly dresses up industry cronyism as progress and transparency. And it dresses up its complete disdain for objective data as a devotion to hard science. For example, the FCC praises itself for the creation of a new "Office of Economics and Analysis" it claims will help "restore the place of economic analysis at the FCC." But as we just got done noting this is the same FCC that just got done ignoring all objective science in its rush to repeal net neutrality, making Pai's purpoted dedication to objective economics laughable.

Fortunately for us, historians, not Ajit Pai, will have the final say on Ajit Pai's accomplishments. And if year one is anything to go by, cronyism, disinformation, a lack of transparency and hubris will be this agency's historical legacy.

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