Given the current climate at the Federal Communications Commission, it is not surprising that instead of writing a genuine apology, the FCC chose to dispute the fact that John Donnelly, a reporter for CQ Roll Call, was manhandled by FCC security as he attempted to ask Commissioner Michael O’Rielly a question. Following the “Save the Internet” rally that took place ahead of that day’s FCC vote to revoke net neutrality protections, open internet advocates — myself included — were treated with hostility in the FCC building when trying to access the meeting.
Advocates were directed by guards to throw away signs tucked away in their bags before entering the building, and once inside, directed to the overflow room. Despite being a former FCC commissioner, guards and FCC officials made it difficult for me to enter the main meeting room even though I explained that a seat was being saved for me. I was also told that I could not stand in the back of the room. When finally seated in the press section, I was told that I could not move to any other vacant seats.
It is not normal for public input to be unwelcome at the FCC, as it appears to be today.
Even if you don’t believe that anti-discrimination rules are necessary to ensure that corporate gatekeepers don’t impede access to the web, there is one thing that we can all agree on: Americans have a right to voice their opinions and to expect the FCC to uphold the integrity of the process.
But from where I stand now, and given my experience as a former FCC commissioner, I can safely say that the FCC’s process is broken. Chairman Ajit Pai has an opportunity to restore integrity, openness and transparency to the FCC. But will he?
The debate over the openness of the internet — the communications system of the 21st Century — is no small matter. The FCC has proposed the elimination of current net neutrality rules and seeks to hand over power to internet service providers like Comcast, AT&T and Verizon allowing these powerful companies to block or slow-down websites for monetary gain.
Sure enough, Pai has a right to implement his agenda and promote his views. But occupying the chair’s seat demands respect for those participating in FCC rulemaking, whether they be big industry lobbyists, grassroot advocates or members of the public. At a minimum, the chair should ensure that the tone of the debate is civil and respectful, and that the public is able to file comments. Pai has failed on both accounts.
First, his opening salvo for repealing the open internet rules was: “This is a fight we will wage and a fight we will win.” A fight? The proceeding is governed by the Administrative Procedure Act, which requires the FCC to act based on review of the law and the record. Calling the proceeding “a fight” are not the words an open-minded chairman would use if he intends to conduct a fair review of the record.
Second, Pai is not making it easy for the public to file comments. He has belittled public input and not acted to investigate and correct a purported hacking of the FCC’s electronic filing system, and recent reports that both sides of the debate may be filing fake comments. Both sides agree that these issues need to be addressed, and prompted by the chairman’s inaction. Democratic Sens. Al Franken (Minn.), Patrick Leahy (Vt.), Edward Markey (Mass.) and Ron Wyden (Ore.) recently sent a letter to the Federal Bureau of Investigation asking to prioritize an investigation into the reported cyberattacks.
Pai has further abased the tone by ridiculing net neutrality supporters, reading derogatory comments about himself — actions suited for late-night comedians, not for the FCC chair. Some might pose he is responding to personal attacks, harassment and threats. As I learned when I was a commissioner, being subjected to attacks, harassment and threats comes with the territory. A public servant needs to rise above the fray and focus on the job at hand.
With comments on revoking the net neutrality rules allowed through mid-August, it is not too late for Pai to restore integrity and confidence in the FCC process. Pai must welcome comments from people of all stripes, return civility and respect to the debate and ensure that the FCC electronic filing system is prepared to handle the many more millions of comments that are expected. Americans, who have come to rely on the internet as an integral part of their lives, deserve and expect no less.
Gloria Tristani is a special adviser to the National Hispanic Media Coalition and served as a FCC commissioner from 1997 to 2001.
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