Tech

The FCC has a new acting chairwoman in Jessica Rosenworcel

The Biden administration has officially appointed Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel acting FCC chairwoman, and she very well may be the first woman to hold the official position if she is nominated for it later this year, as many expect. With her record of standing for equal access, industry accountability and net neutrality, Rosenworcel’s FCC will be very different from her predecessor’s.

(Update: This article previously stated that Rosenworcel would be the first acting FCC chairwoman, but the formidable Mignon Clyburn briefly held the acting role in 2013 while Tom Wheeler was being confirmed. If nominated and confirmed, Rosenworcel would be the first nonacting chairwoman.)

“I am honored to be designated as the acting chairwoman of the Federal Communications Commission by President Biden. I thank the president for the opportunity to lead an agency with such a vital mission and talented staff. It is a privilege to serve the American people and work on their behalf to expand the reach of communications opportunity in the digital age,” she said in a statement.

While Rosenworcel’s agenda will be made clear over the coming weeks and months, it is likely we will see the return of net neutrality from the shallow grave dug for it by Ajit Pai, and probably a new effort to better understand where in the country actually needs help getting broadband to those who need it, and how to do so quickly and equitably. Her first items of business, however, will likely pertain to getting internet access to those most affected by the pandemic.

(Disclosure: The FCC regulates TechCrunch’s parent company, Verizon, but this has no effect on our coverage.)

Rosenworcel first started at the FCC in 2003 and filled other federal communications regulation roles over the years. She was nominated for commissioner by President Obama in 2011 (confirmed in 2012), and was in the running for chair in 2013, though Tom Wheeler ended up taking the spot. Her second term as commissioner began in 2017.

Throughout her tenure at the FCC Rosenworcel has pushed for net neutrality and improved broadband access for schools and economically disadvantaged areas. During Ajit Pai’s tumultuous term as chairman she offered implacable resistance to what she saw as an unjustified hands-off approach to regulating telecoms, and a fierce indictment of the FCC’s failure to act in the best interest of the people it serves. Here are a few examples.

At the 2017 vote killing net neutrality, Rosenworcel was unsparing in voicing her fury at the shadiness of the entire rule-making process:

I dissent from this rash decision to roll back net neutrality rules. I dissent from the corrupt process that has brought us to this point. And I dissent from the contempt this agency has shown our citizens in pursuing this path today. This decision puts the Federal Communications Commission on the wrong side of history, the wrong side of the law and the wrong side of the American public.

In 2018, with an epidemic of robocalling growing by the month, she contradicted Pai’s claim that a $120 million fine (almost certainly never collected) for one offender proved there was a “cop on the beat”:

Today the FCC adopts a forfeiture order to impose a penalty on one operation that made tens of millions of robocalls two years ago. I support it. But let’s be honest: Going after a single bad actor is emptying the ocean with a teaspoon — and right now we’re all wet.

That the industry still has not widely adopted the framework that would nip robocalls in the bud is testament to this, though they should soon after the FCC finally got in gear. (This year she also contributed a piece to TechCrunch to call for immediate action on the rollout of 5G.)

In 2019, Rosenworcel called out the agency’s seeming lack of concern about a major loophole in telecoms regulation that allowed every mobile service vendor to essentially sell real-time location data to anyone willing to pay for it:

The FCC has been totally silent about press reports that for a few hundred dollars shady middlemen can sell your location within a few hundred meters based on your wireless phone data. That’s unacceptable.

Her office released letters to the agency from the major carriers as a stopgap measure to inform people. When the FCC finally formally moved against the practice, she noted, “It’s a shame that it took so long for the FCC to reach a conclusion that was so obvious.”

In 2020, Rosenworcel raised for the nth time the FCC’s lack of good data concerning broadband deployment in the country. The problem had rankled for years but was highlighted by a spectacular failure to vet industry data provided more or less on the honor system, which ended up throwing off numbers nationally:

This should have set off alarm bells at the FCC. In fact, agency staff reached out to the company nearly a dozen times over multiple years, including after this suspect data was filed. Despite these efforts behind the scenes, on February 19, 2019, the FCC used the erroneous data filed by BarrierFree in a press release, claiming great progress in closing the nation’s digital divide. When an outside party pointed out this was based on fraudulent information, the FCC was forced to revise its claim.

An embarrassing demonstration of how poor the current system is. Of the broadband report itself she had written earlier:

This report deserves a failing grade. Putting aside the embarrassing fumble of the FCC blindly accepting incorrect data for the original version of this report, there are serious problems with its basic methodology. Time and again this agency has acknowledged the grave limitations of the data we collect to assess broadband deployment.

After all, if the FCC doesn’t know who actually is getting decent broadband and who isn’t, how can they direct funds to help bridge that gap?

Lastly, late in 2020 when Pai caved to administration pressure to reevaluate the hugely important Section 230, which limits the liability of internet platforms for the content posted on them, Rosenworcel once again summed up the situation simply and honestly:

The timing of this effort is absurd. The FCC has no business being the president’s speech police.

This abortive attempt to weaken Section 230 never had legs to begin with and will not be pursued further, according to an FCC source.

These are only a handful of the more high-profile moments of Rosenworcel’s latest term, and in fact it is something of a disservice to list just them. The work of an FCC commissioner, their staff and the bureaus they rely on, is largely obscure and technical, with moments like those listed above more the exception than the rule.

With the last-minute confirmation of Republican Commissioner Nathan Simington, the FCC is currently at a 2-2 in its normally 3-2 partisan makeup in favor of the presiding administration. Since Democrats won both Senate seats in Georgia, the feared deadlock will likely be avoided, with a fifth commissioner nominated and confirmed in short order so that work can begin. We’ll know more about Rosenworcel’s priorities and agenda soon.

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