On Wednesday, the Senate Commerce Committee is holding a hearing to confirm President Joe Biden’s nominee to lead the National Telecommunications and Information Administration — a traditionally somewhat-sleepy role that is taking on new prominence in the wake of the passage of the bipartisan infrastructure bill.
That law gives the NTIA authority to write the rules and oversee the distribution of $42.5 billion in broadband infrastructure grants to states, a duty that will require it to massively scale its internal resources. To lead the charge, Biden has nominated Alan Davidson, a well-known figure in Washington who has spent his career cycling through government, industry and advocacy groups. If confirmed, Davidson would have perhaps the most important role in guiding an unprecedented expansion of internet access in America.
“Congressional infrastructure funding has created a once-in-a-generation opportunity to close the digital divide and connect all Americans,” Davidson said during his opening remarks Wednesday. “This will be my top priority in the coming years.”
Here’s what you need to know about him.
Davidson’s no newbie to government
Running the NTIA would be Davidson’s second stint in the Commerce Department. In 2015, he became the department’s first director of digital economy. In that role, he told POLITICO at the time, he worked to give “a greater voice to the Internet community on issues in this administration.”
During the end of the Obama years — a cozier time between government and tech than now — he helped set the Commerce Department’s “Digital Economy Agenda,” which included advocating for a free and open internet worldwide, expanding broadband access, enhancing cybersecurity and “promoting innovation.”
He’s a former Googler
Davidson is also well-known for becoming Google’s first policy staffer in 2005 and laying the groundwork for Google to become a lobbying force in Washington. In that role, which he held until 2012, Davidson helped Google navigate investigations by the Department of Justice and a thorny relationship with China, which culminated in the company shutting down search in that country in 2010.
As Washington’s scrutiny of Google grew during those years, Davidson testified multiple times before Congress, defending Google’s record on privacy and advocating for the U.S. to more forcefully fight censorship among trade partners. “We should continue to look for effective ways to address unfair foreign trade barriers in the online world: to use trade agreements, trade tools and trade diplomacy to promote the free flow of information on the Internet," Davidson said during testimony in 2010.
He’s also been an advocate
In addition to his long tenure at Google, Davidson’s career has also included stints at advocacy groups including the Center for Democracy and Technology, the New America Foundation and, most recently, the Mozilla Foundation. Digital rights champions celebrated his nomination to the NTIA. “I cannot think of anyone more deserving and qualified to lead NTIA at a time when the agency is set to play a major role in dramatically improving broadband access and affordability across the country,” Alexandra Reeve Givens, CEO of the Center for Democracy and Technology, said in a statement at the time.
He’s looking to take on privacy
Even before Davidson’s confirmation hearing began, the NTIA said it would host a series of listening sessions focused on “privacy, equity and civil rights.” These sessions, which will take place later this month, will inform the NTIA’s policy guidance on issues related to topics including data brokers, workplace surveillance, housing algorithms and more. These listening sessions will lead to a request for comment from NTIA before the agency issues its policy report. If confirmed, Davidson will undoubtedly have a heavy hand in shaping the NTIA’s response to that feedback.
He’s got his work cut out for him
About that infrastructure bill: If he’s confirmed, Davidson will need to hire — and fast. “It feels like a very big job for an agency that hasn't had somebody in charge to dictate directions," Angela Siefer, executive director of the nonprofit National Digital Inclusion Alliance, recently told Protocol.
Before states can submit their proposals for a slice of that $42.5 billion, the NTIA will have to write the rules that dictate what they should be proposing in the first place. Then the NTIA will have to approve and monitor plans from 58 different states and territories, not all of which are well-prepared to spend billions of dollars on broadband projects. “You’re not developing a plan for the distribution of $42.5 billion,” Blair Levin, former head of the FCC's National Broadband Plan, said. “You’re overseeing 58 different groups that are making decisions about how to award their money.”