We turn now to look at President Donald Trump’s newly appointed chair of the Federal Communications Commission, Ajit Pai, who has begun to attack net neutrality rules and other consumer protections. In a series of actions earlier this month, Pai blocked nine companies from providing affordable high-speed internet to low-income families, and withdrew the FCC’s support from an effort to curb the exorbitant cost of phone calls from prison. He has also said he disagrees with the 2015 decision to regulate the internet like a public utility. We speak Jessica González, deputy director and senior counsel at Free Press. González was formerly on the FCC’s Open Internet Advisory Committee and Diversity Committee.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We turn now to look at President Donald Trump’s newly appointed chair of the Federal Communications Commission, Ajit Pai, who has begun to attack net neutrality rules and other consumer protections. In a series of actions earlier this month, Pai blocked nine companies from providing affordable high-speed internet to low-income families. He withdrew the FCC’s support from an effort to curb the exorbitant cost of phone calls from prison. And he also said he disagrees with the 2015 decision to regulate the internet like a public utility.
AMY GOODMAN: For more, we’re going to Los Angeles, where we’ll speak with Jessica González, deputy director, senior counsel at Free Press. González was formerly on the FCC’s Open Internet Advisory Committee and Diversity Committee. She’s also the former executive vice president of the National Hispanic Media Coalition.
Jessica González, welcome to Democracy Now!
JESSICA GONZÁLEZ: Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the significance of the elevation of Ajit Pai to be the head of the FCC, and the decisions and the stands that he takes.
JESSICA GONZÁLEZ: Well, Ajit Pai is Trump’s new FCC chairman, and it should come as a surprise to no one that he poses a significant threat, not only to net neutrality, but also to the digital divide. In his first weeks—his first week in office, he talked a good game about bridging the digital divide. But actions speak louder than words. And if you look at his actions, there’s a very, very troubling history of voting against reforms to both bring affordable access to poor Americans, to low-income Americans, to people of color, who disproportionately lack home internet access, but there’s also a troubling history of voting against net neutrality. He voted against the Lifeline order, to modernize Lifeline and bring affordable broadband to low-income families. He voted against the E-rate order, to help bring high-speed internet to schools and libraries in poor neighborhoods. And he voted against net neutrality, to keep the internet open so that people who don’t usually get a spot in mainstream media can tell their own stories, can organize for justice and can make a living. And so, we’re very concerned. We have a close eye on him. And we can’t trust what he says. And actions speak louder than words.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Jessica, in a 2015 interview with Reason TV, Ajit Pai suggested that any federal regulation of the internet is harmful. This is what he said.
COMMISSIONER AJIT PAI: Do you trust the federal government to make the internet ecosystem more vibrant than it is today? Can you think of any regulated utility, like the electric company or water company, that is as innovative as the internet? I mean, I think what he, what Marc Andreessen, who developed, of course, the first Netscape browser—what he and other entrepreneurs are seeing is that this is something that has worked really well, and there’s no reason for the FCC to mess it up by inserting itself into areas where it hasn’t been before.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: So what about this issue of his view on the internet? And remember, it took the Obama administration several years, only the last couple of years of Obama’s presidency, before they finally took a clear stand that the internet was a public utility, and even under Wheeler, who no one expected, as the chair of the FCC, a former telecommunications guy, that it would pass, it would take that stand. It has now. What would it mean if Pai got the FCC to vote to rescind that?
JESSICA GONZÁLEZ: Well, it would be very dangerous. Look, we’re in an administration that is trying to shut down speech. We have a president and his surrogates telling the media to shut up. They’re trying to silence dissent. And the internet is the one clear way where we know that people, movements can control the narrative and can organize. Four million Americans wrote to the FCC in 2015 and told them, “We want an open internet. We understand that the internet companies have monopoly-like status, that they are blocking—you know, that they have the power and the incentive to block access and to cut special deals behind our backs. And we don’t want that. We want to be able—once we pay the hefty prices we do to get on the internet, we want to be able to go where we want, see what we want, and access the content we want, without getting shoved over into a slow lane if you don’t have the money.” And so, it’s incredibly vital, now more than ever, that we protect an open internet and that this administration heed the millions and millions of regular people, that—you know, I think we cannot trust Ajit Pai. He’s a former Verizon lobbyist. He’s, you know, walking in the footsteps of Trump. And we need to be very, very, very careful.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to ask you about the troubling role of a lot of the civil rights organizations on this issue, the NAACP and others and this minority media telecommunications organization. Could you talk about the disappointing role that some of these organizations have played in this debate?
JESSICA GONZÁLEZ: Sure. Well, there’s a few organizations that represent people of color that have come out on the wrong side of this issue. It’s troubling, but, frankly, if you look at the grassroots, the vast majority of people of color understand this. We understand that we do not like the way we have been represented in mainstream media. We’re portrayed as criminals. We’re portrayed as people who pose a danger to the society. We understand that the internet has played a democratizing force in making sure that our voices are heard, in making sure that we’ve been able to organize and in making sure that we can really, you know, tap into the networks that we need to tap into to change the narrative in this country for the better of lots of different issues—for the water protectors, for immigrant rights activists, for Black Lives Matter. And we see the way that movements have utilized the internet to change the way society perceives us. And so, these groups—there’s a few of them—they’re on the wrong side of the issue, and it’s very troubling. But, you know, they don’t represent most people of color on this.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to—I want to ask you about Ajit Pai’s position on the FCC’s attempts to prevent prison phone monopolies from dramatically overcharging families for phone calls to prisoners.
JESSICA GONZÁLEZ: Sure. Well, this is yet another example of where he talks the talk, but he walks in the other direction. He—in both 2013 and 2015, the FCC looked at the issue of exorbitant prison phone rates. Some families of inmates and detainees are paying up to $17 for a 15-minute call. It’s outrageous. The prisons are getting kickbacks from prison phone companies to charge these exorbitant rates. And it’s a real abuse of power. Ajit Pai actually acknowledged that this was unjust and that the interests of inmates’ families may not necessarily align with the prison phone companies’. Yet he went ahead and voted against two different orders to help regulate the rates and the fees that are charged by these companies. And so, he talks the talk, but he doesn’t walk the walk. In fact, he filed a 20-page dissent in 2013 that mirrored some of the company talking points. And so, we have to really hold him accountable on this. He does not have the best interests of communities of color and poor people at heart. And we need to hold his feet to the fire.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And finally, I wanted to ask you, you were—you were a member of the FCC’s Open Internet Advisory Committee and Diversity Committee. Have those been dissolved? Or what’s happened? Because I understand you haven’t been called to any meetings in quite a while.
JESSICA GONZÁLEZ: It’s been a couple years since I’ve heard anything about those. They used to be active, few years back. We’d meet on a semiregular basis. I don’t think I’ve received an official word on whether or not they exist anymore, but I certainly haven’t been invited to any meetings in the past couple of years.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Jessica González, we want to thank you for being with us, deputy director, senior counsel at Free Press, formerly with the FCC’s Open Internet Advisory Committee and Diversity Committee.
This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. When we come back, two leading immigrants’ rights activists here in New York in the face of the attempted imposition of the Muslim travel ban, but also the raids that have been taking place across the country. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: “El Hielo/ICE,” by La Santa Cecilia, performing at our Democracy Now! studio. To see the full interview and their performance, go to democracynow.org. Yes, this is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.