FCC’s Clyburn defends LifeLine, but whose responsibility is social inclusion?


Democrat FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn has hit FCC Chairman Ajit Pai hard with a potentially emotionally manipulative speech criticizing plans to end its LifeLine programme.

Back in November, the FCC announced plans to scale back the federal Lifeline programme, an initiative which assists poorer families in accessing the digital world. LifeLine is not a perfect system, it is fraught with fraud and muddled with red-tape, but that is not a reason to completely scrap it. This will do nothing but widen the digital divide, though it does as a bigger question; who should be responsible for social inclusion?

Speaking to the Voices for Internet Freedom organization, Clyburn said, “I am proud to stand with you, Representatives Moore and Waters, as well as my colleague, Commissioner Rosenworcel, for voicing disapproval about what can only be categorized as an attack on the economically poor.”

Whether social inclusion should be part of the FCC’s remit as a regulator is down to individual opinion. What is clear however is that something has to. The difference between the rich and the poor, the haves and the have nots, in the US is large and only growing. Some might argue this issue would be perfect for an industry watchdog to take ownership of, some might argue it is completely inappropriate.

On one side of the coin, industry watchdogs could be perceived as very pragmatic organizations. They regulate on black and white issues, writing and enforcing rules, keeping a close eye on what the market is and that it acts legally, ethically and in the best interest of the ecosystem. Issues such as social inclusion should be left to legislators in political office to ensure there is a clear boundary between philosophical thinking and practical management of an industry.

On the other side, the FCC could be a perfect place for issues such as social inclusion. Aside from making the industry cogs move smoothly, it has a responsibility to protect the consumer from anti-competition and market abuse. It also has a national remit, unlike social warriors in elected offices, and the power to enforce change in the communications industry. The FCC has the platform to be a power for good for social inclusion, it is down to the fact whether you think the responsibility is appropriate.

By creating the LifeLine programme, the FCC has made social inclusion its responsibility, but that doesn’t mean it is appropriate. Now that there is a new administration in charge and the FCC is leaning right, it looks like social inclusion is off the agenda. Allowing the watchdog to focus more intently on practical issues is not necessarily a bad idea, but the battle to represent the underserved and unheard needs to be passed onto someone else. It can’t be left to wither on its own.

This is the major problem with American politics, and while it shouldn’t be the FCC has now effectively become a political office, there is no middle ground. Democrats constantly climb the moral mountain to look down upon those who do not hold their values, while Republicans stand on the pier of pragmatism and condescend the blue-sky thinkers for impracticality. The two groups are so far apart making the seesawing of opinion and roles incredibly excessive. It shouldn’t and couldn’t be considered a healthy system.

There is a need to have a body which is entirely focused on the here and now, so may be social inclusion should be the responsibility of the politicians not watchdogs. Or maybe an additional body should be created for these very issues, though there is the risk of creating a red-tape maze. Perhaps the power and influence of the FCC over US telcos says it all. Personally, your correspondent believes the FCC is an excellent place to start.

The internet has evolved from being a playground for surfers to a critical aspect of every single person’s life. You might be able to function in the real world for the moment, but this is not going to be the case forever. The world will be defined by the digital economy, therefore it is critical that the poorest and most vulnerable corners of our society are included in the connected evolution. Someone has to take responsibility and in the US, the FCC could be perfectly placed.

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