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What the Biden administration can learn from Ajit Pai’s FCC

The Biden administration's goals for internet infrastructure would be best pursued using economic incentives rather than heavy-handed directives, argues Douglas Holtz-Eakin.

What the Biden administration can learn from Ajit Pai’s FCC

FCC chairman Ajit Pai gave the private sector plenty of latitude. Will that continue under the Biden administration after Pai steps down?

Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

As Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai prepares to step down on Jan. 20, there are more than a few lessons the incoming Biden administration could learn from his tenure at the agency. Perhaps the most important lesson is that each of the new administration's goals for internet infrastructure — bridging the digital divide, universal broadband, rapid deployment of 5G — is best pursued using a regulatory approach that emphasizes economic incentives over heavy-handed directives.

Since March 1, internet usage has increased by roughly 30%, yet our networks have not buckled under pandemic-era pressures. Unlike much of Europe, we have not seen our access or speeds limited. This level of resilience is no accident. Under Pai, the private sector has had the appropriate incentives and latitude to do what it does best: invest in opportunity and innovate. The regulatory strategy and decisions got us to where we are today.

Many did not expect this outcome. When Pai's FCC repealed net neutrality two years ago, there was a flood of concern and consternation that this repeal would enable opportunistic and malicious internet providers to throttle access or slow down speeds. No pervasive bad behavior emerged. Instead, by lifting these regulatory burdens, the FCC helped spur a surge of private investment in broadband deployment, not only connecting more Americans in hard-to-reach or underserved communities, but also supporting more nimble, resilient networks that can handle rapid changes and growth in internet demand. At the same time, broadband prices continue to decline even as speeds continue to increase.

In the presence of this hands-off regulatory approach, most Americans today are able to telework, learn online, and participate in remote health care consultations with little to no fuss. To be sure, we are far from finally closing the digital divide, but the current FCC has left us with a blueprint of the most efficient way to meet this goal and others for our internet infrastructure.

That blueprint is straightforward: Solutions to the connectivity and economic challenges we face today — from getting and keeping our students and educators online during the pandemic, to expanding remote access to health care delivery, to expanding the reach of high-speed connections — can only be sustained when the economics make sense. We need a rigorous, data-driven approach to solving these challenges. The Pai FCC has pursued this path, often on a bipartisan basis, and in the process has helped to boost connectivity in underserved communities, expand economic opportunity and — unknowingly — prepare our country to navigate an unprecedented public health and economic crisis.

The next FCC chair and the Biden administration as a whole should not abandon this light-touch approach; they should double down on it. In order to finish the job of connecting all Americans to high-speed internet service, the incoming FCC should avoid interfering in the marketplace and burdening companies with unnecessary restrictions. As my colleague Jennifer Huddleston has explained, this is the exact approach that we should continue taking with regard to development and deployment of 5G.

5G has the potential to bring high-speed connections to the hardest-to-reach places, but the federal government is considering building and running a single national 5G network — the exact opposite approach of the Pai FCC's approach. Taking this kind of single-contractor approach to 5G, as Huddleston mentioned, is likely to be costlier for taxpayers, take significantly longer to deploy and undermine the competitive system we have today in which multiple actors are working to develop and deploy 5G and related technologies. In a truly competitive marketplace, consumers benefit from greater choice, while businesses are rewarded for their ability to provide cutting-edge services. The future of 5G and the emerging technologies it will enable are full of promise, and it would be a shame to throttle the development and deployment of 5G when our country has all the right tools to succeed.

To swiftly and meaningfully expand broadband and 5G connectivity, the new administration must continue to rely on the tested economics that has encouraged innovation and investment across our entire internet infrastructure. As the transition team prepares for a new FCC Chair, they must remember that the United States built a robust and innovative digital economy by limiting government interference. It would be foolish to abandon that strategy now.


What tech policy could look like in Biden’s first 100 days

More antitrust laws and bridging the digital divide should be top of mind for the incoming administration.

Antitrust enforcement is one of the big lessons going into the Biden administration.
Photo: Alex Edelman/Getty Images

Although it is too soon to tell with certainty how President-elect Joe Biden will address the questions surrounding tech policy, it is clear that his inaugural transition on Wednesday will affect the world of tech.

Protocol reporters Issie Lapowsky and Emily Birnbaum, virtually met up with panelists Tuesday to discuss what tech policy and regulation could look like in Biden's first 100 days in office — as well as the next four years.

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Penelope Blackwell
Penelope Blackwell is a reporting fellow at Protocol covering ed-tech, where she reports on the decisions leading up toward the advances of remote learning. Previously, she interned at The Baltimore Sun covering emerging news and produced content for Carnegie-Knight’s News21 documenting hate and bias incidents in the U.S. She is also a recent graduate of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and Morgan State University.

Why Biden needs a National Technology Council

The U.S. government needs a more tightly coordinated approach to technology, argues Jonathan Spalter.

A coordinated effort to approach tech could help the White House navigate the future more easily.

Photo: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

The White House has a National Security Council and a National Economic Council. President-elect Joe Biden should move quickly to establish a National Technology Council.

Consumers are looking to the government to set a coherent and consistent 21st century digital policy that works for them. Millions of Americans still await public investments that will help connect their remote communities to broadband, while millions more — including many families with school-age children — still struggle to afford access.

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Jonathan Spalter
Jonathan Spalter is the president and CEO of USTelecom – The Broadband Association.

We need Section 230 now more than ever

For those who want to see less of the kind of content that led to the storming of the Capitol, Section 230 may be unsatisfying, but it's the most the Constitution will permit.

Even if certain forms of awful speech could be made unlawful, requiring tech sites to clean it up would be even more constitutionally difficult.

Photo: Angel Xavier Viera-Vargas

Many conservatives are outraged that Twitter has banned President Trump, calling it "censorship" and solemnly invoking the First Amendment. In fact, the First Amendment gives Twitter an absolute right to ban Trump — just as it protects Simon & Schuster's right not to publish Sen. Josh Hawley's planned book, "The Tyranny of Big Tech."

The law here is clear. In 1974, the Supreme Court said newspapers can't be forced to carry specific content in the name of "fairness," despite the alleged consolidation of "the power to inform the American people and shape public opinion." The Court had upheld such Fairness Doctrine mandates for broadcasters in 1969 only because the government licenses use of publicly owned airwaves. But since 1997, the Court has held that digital media enjoys the same complete protection of the First Amendment as newspapers. "And whatever the challenges of applying the Constitution to ever-advancing technology," wrote Justice Antonin Scalia in 2011, "'the basic principles of freedom of speech and the press, like the First Amendment's command, do not vary' when a new and different medium for communication appears."

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Berin Szóka

Berin Szóka (@BerinSzoka) is president of TechFreedom (@TechFreedom), a technology policy think tank in Washington, DC.


Ajit Pai is distancing himself from President Trump

The FCC chairman will not move forward on Section 230 and says election conspiracy theories should not have been "indulged."

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai will leave the FCC on Jan. 20.

Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

For the bulk of his tenure, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has avoided wading into the relentless controversies that defined President Trump's presidency. He has faced massive protests over his rollback of net neutrality rules, pressure to break from Trump as the president targeted the "fake news media" and White House orders to rein in Section 230, Trump's least favorite law. Throughout it all, Pai has remained relatively quiet, avoiding speaking publicly about the president at all.

But in the final days of the Trump era, as Republican officials are finally breaking from Trump's control in the wake of violence on Capitol Hill, Pai is cautiously distancing himself from the president — in his own, understated way.

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Emily Birnbaum

Emily Birnbaum ( @birnbaum_e) is a tech policy reporter with Protocol. Her coverage focuses on the U.S. government's attempts to regulate one of the most powerful industries in the world, with a focus on antitrust, privacy and politics. Previously, she worked as a tech policy reporter with The Hill after spending several months as a breaking news reporter. She is a Bethesda, Maryland native and proud Kenyon College alumna.

Critics incorrectly claim that Section 230 protects bad online platforms from the enforcement of major crimes.

Photo: Ulrich Perrey/Getty Images

Despite current debate over harmful content online and Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, the truth is that Section 230 is the law that makes our internet a better place. Section 230 is often blamed for all bad content and illegal activity on the internet, but under the law, any activity that's criminal offline is criminal online. In fact, Section 230 provides no shield to criminals from enforcement of state, local and federal laws, whether they commit their crimes on or off the internet.

Take the horrific example of, an online platform that enabled sex trafficking online. In 2018, the federal government seized control of the website, shut it down and threw its owners in prison. The federal government swooped in and enforced federal criminal law. In fact, Section 230 was irrelevant in this case because the law provides no protection for platforms that contribute to criminal wrongdoing. The law also offers no protection for child exploitation or copyright violations.

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Carl Szabo
Carl Szabo is vice president and general counsel at NetChoice.
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