Who should be the next head of the Federal Communications Commission?
(Guardian Web Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) As President Obama's second term takes shape, many of his top appointees are leaving – a standard pattern for all two-term presidencies. While most of the press attention has been focused on the major cabinet posts such as Treasury, State and Defense, some important posts below that tier are also being vacated or are expected to be. One of the most important of those is the top job at the Federal Communications Commission, where current Chairman Julius Genachowski is widely believed to be on the way out. His replacement, assuming he's leaving, should be someone who tries harder to keep the promises Obama made as a candidate in 2008.
With few exceptions, such as the Justice Department's blocking of the AT&T buyout of T-Mobile, American telecom policy in recent years has tended to reward consolidation and control of broadband and wireless communications by a few huge companies. Among other alarming realities, two-fifths of US states, bowing to the lobbying clout of the telecom companies, now bar local governments from offering internet service or have erected legal barriers making it much more difficult.
Comcast, by far the biggest cable provider, made a deal with Verizon that amounts to a non-compete treaty, by which Comcast gets the "fixed line" business and Verizon gets the wireless – a deal that should never have passed regulatory scrutiny. Broadband speeds in America lag behind other developed nations – not surprising, given that many other nations require their telecom companies to let competing ISPs offer service on the lines.
The FCC chairman is one of five commissioners, but a crucially important one, as he or she has agenda-setting powers at the very least and much more than that in practice. Genachowski, from my perspective, has made only half-hearted challenges to the status quo, and the FCC's National Broadband Plan is more a wishlist than an actual plan – as you'd expect given the incumbent companies' control. And in face of that reality, the well-meaning chairman's recent speech proposing gigabit connections nationwide amounted to bold words with little to back them up.Whom Obama might be considering for the post-Genachowski era is a matter of speculation at this point. I've heard rumors that one candidate might be Blair Levin, a lawyer who was chief-of-staff to former FCC chairman Reid Hundt during the Clinton administration. If Obama heeds calls to put a woman in charge for the first time, he might pick one of two current Democratic commissioners, Mignon Clyburn and Jessica Rosenworcel. About the only certainty is that the job will be filled by a Democrat.
In the past few days, I've been participating in a conversation with a number of folks who believe there is an another, ideal candidate. Her name is Susan Crawford.Now, given the administration's record to date – and especially the torrent of abuse and opposition her nomination would create from the oligopolistic telecommunications industry and its true believers – her appointment may seem unlikely. But for all kinds of reasons, I believe she's the right choice. (Disclosure: I've known Crawford for years and consider her a friend; moreover, we have many mutual friends and allies who have contributed many of the points that follow.)
Start with her background. I can't think of another potential candidate with deeper understanding of the relevant topics – based on research and hands-on experience – and with a better sense of what it would take to move America into the connected, collaborative future it risks forfeiting under current policies. Here's a sampler: she's a law professor who focuses on telecommunications. She served on the FCC's review team in the 2008-09 Bush-Obama transition and as an Obama aide for science, technology and innovation policy. Her recent book, Captive Audience: The Telecom Industry and Monopoly Power in the New Gilded Age, is a must-read on how for anyone following the topic, as are her recent columns and op-ed pieces. (I don't agree with all of Crawford's prescriptions for change, but they are always thought-provoking.)
Crawford has been one of America's leading champions of network neutrality, the notion that the providers of broadband connections should not, with rare exceptions, be allowed to treat one kind of data differently than another in its transmission to Internet users. Unfortunately, and dangerously, the major carriers believe they have the right to decide which bits of information will arrive at their customers' devices in what order and at what speed – if they are to arrive at all. (Even the current FCC majority's relatively modest net-neutrality policy met with fury, and legal challenges, from the carriers.)
Crawford has also been a vocal opponent of internet-control legislation, such as the odious Sopa law that was shot down a year ago, almost at the last minute, by activists. She understands the value of innovation, while Hollywood's copyright cartel and allies want innovators to get permission first. And as someone who genuinely believes in the first amendment, she abhors the censorship inherent in such proposals, and would fight to prevent it.
When he nominates a new FCC head, whether it's soon or down the road, Obama can tell the American people – and the world – that he recognizes one of the most essential 21st-century challenges: to have a telecom infrastructure that gives all Americans a chance to participate in the economy that will depend on modern communications. He's free of re-election pressures. It's time to move ahead. A Crawford nomination would send the right message.
(c) 2013 Guardian Newspapers Limited.
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