How the FCC Could Roll Back Hard Fought Civil Rights Advances

Under the Communications Act, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is obligated to “make available … to all people of the United States, without discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, or sex, a rapid, efficient, Nationwide, and world-wide wire and radio communication service with adequate facilities at reasonable charges.”

Our nation’s communication policy is based on these principles for good reason: too many people in the United States lack access to communications services that make equal opportunity and democratic participation possible.

But last week the FCC, led by Chairman Ajit Pai, announced two orders that will be voted on later this month, which would roll back hard fought civil rights advances — at a time when our educational and economic opportunities, as well as political participation, are increasingly dependent upon communications infrastructure and technology.

Though not widely known by the general public, these proposals cut at the heart of how people in America meaningfully participate in 21st century society. The FCC plays a key role in shaping that vision, and the current proposals limit the sources of information for some of the nation’s most vulnerable communities.

One proposal would gut Lifeline, the low-income subsidy program that, since 1985, has provided low-income communities with access to vital communications through subsidies for basic phone service. In 2005, under President Bush, the program was expanded to include wireless telephone services, and in 2016, the program was modernized to include broadband. Lifeline is the government program dedicated to bringing phone and internet service within reach for people of color, low-income people, seniors, veterans, and people with disabilities.

The FCC is now proposing to remove resellers from the program, thereby cutting off approximately 75 percent of current Lifeline recipients from support; imposing a budget cap; and adding administrative hurdles inhibiting competitive and innovative new providers from participating in the program and limiting Lifeline recipient participation. These proposals would threaten the efficacy of the program at a time when our focus should be on ensuring that more families who need Lifeline receive it. While many people in the United States take access to the internet for granted, millions of Americans live on the wrong side of the digital divide. Cost is often a barrier preventing people from getting online.

The FCC has also announced it will eliminate several rules promoting competition and diversity in the broadcast media, including a rule that prohibits ownership of a daily newspaper and a TV or radio station in the same market and another that prohibits one company from owning more than one of the top four TV stations in the same market. In taking this action, the commission is ignoring the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, which has held multiple times that the commission cannot relax ownership rules without analyzing the impact of that action on ownership rates by women and people of color — given already dismally low ownership rates. Only 7.1 percent of full power TV stations are owned by people of color, and this number will go down as many stations exit the marketplace in the next few years. In addition, the FCC is justifying its decision to eliminate several of the radio rules with the controversial finding that radio stations do not contribute a viewpoint in the marketplace of ideas. The FCC will also soon permit broadcasters to exceed the remaining restrictions by asserting on paper that two stations are independent when in fact one station controls the other.

Newspapers and television continue to be the only enterprises engaged in serious hard news reporting, as compared with the opinions and analysis of news that occurs on most new platforms, and the commission’s media ownership rules safeguard competition, localism, and diversity. Most important are the media ownership rules’ role in preserving the vitality of minority viewpoints in our national and local marketplace of ideas. Access to the media by the broadest sector of society is crucial to ensuring that diverse viewpoints are presented to the American people, but racial and gender disparities in media ownership that date back to the beginning of the civil rights era continue to persist.

This proposal would take the nation further in the wrong direction. Instead, the commission should improve its data collection about the ownership of women and people of color, undertake more research on how to increase that ownership, and take the steps necessary to ensure more ownership diversity, such as closing loopholes, reducing ownership caps, and addressing equal employment opportunity.

For years, civil rights leaders have fought for and won battles against discrimination and for opportunity in the communications industry. These advances have contributed to the nation’s progress on civil rights in many ways. As policymakers debate how our nation should govern communications, we believe that issues such as more access to infrastructure, more diversity of owners and voices, and more tools to address economic opportunity should be front and center. When these policies fail, equal opportunity and democratic participation are compromised.

This story is cross-posted on our Medium page here.