Mignon Clyburn, one of five commissioners for the Federal Communications Commission and a staunch supporter of net neutrality, announced her decision to step down from her role today after more than eight years at the agency. Clyburn, a Democrat, may be replaced by FCC official Geoffrey Starks, who Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) has reportedly been eyeing to take up the second of two Democratic seats on the Republican-controlled FCC. It is typically customary for the FCC commissioners to represent the party in power, and President Donald Trump appointed Republican Ajit Pai as chairman in January of 2017.
While Clyburn’s departure was expected, the loss of a net neutrality advocate does further diminish the FCC’s willingness to regulate internet service providers. Last year, Pai led a vote to successfully kill net neutrality by repealing the Open Internet Order that reclassified telecoms as utilities under Title II of the Communications Act of 1934. Clyburn briefly ran the FCC for six months in 2013 as its first female chair, ahead of the official tenure of Obama-nominated Tom Wheeler, who Clyburn helped to push the FCC three years ago to pass the strictest net neutrality rules to date.
In her time as chair, Clyburn made numerous pro-competition and pro-consumer strides in areas like the unlocking of smartphones, internet access for low-income and minority communities, and per-minute rate caps on long-distance phone calls for prison inmates. After Wheeler was replaced last year by Pai, who began orchestrating his rollback of net neutrality, Clyburn fought vigorously to retain consumer internet protections. She often addresses protestors in public forums to fight for the sanctity of the internet and publicly denounced the decision to repeal Wheeler’s order.
“But we — meaning the FCC — are supposed to be here protecting the consumer’s experience and interests when it comes to communications and other services,” Clyburn told CNET last December. “We are supposed to be enablers of opportunities both for businesses and individuals. How do we best balance the scales when it comes to regulating consumer protections and promoting innovation and investment? We use legally sustainable rules of the road so there is a cop on the beat that can and will enforce them.”
In a statement, acting FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, the remaining Democrat on the commission, voiced her support for Clyburn and the work she did to protect the internet in a statement given to Gizmodo:
Commissioner Clyburn has been a forceful advocate for change, for equal opportunity, and for closing the digital divide. It was a privilege to support her history-making leadership as Acting Chairwoman. It has been an honor to work alongside her to put consumers first and bring connectivity to those at greatest risk of being left behind — urban, rural, and everywhere in between. I am proud to have worked together with her to support net neutrality and grateful to have been her partner in her unwavering work to remedy the grave injustice of exorbitant prison phone rates. As she departs this agency, she should know her legacy is intact because so many who work on communications policy will continue to be guided by her outstanding example. I consider myself among them.
In short, Commissioner Clyburn is a dynamo. She represents the best of public service. I am proud to call her both a colleague and a friend.
Pai also issued a statement today, congratulating Clyburn on her legacy but acknowledging that they did not see “eye-to-eye on policy”:
I congratulate Commissioner Clyburn on her distinguished tenure at the FCC. She has been a tremendous leader and a committed public servant throughout her time here. As the first woman to head the agency, she led skillfully through a transition and put her [own] stamp on the Commission, including through her steadfast leadership in telehealth, media diversity, and digital inclusion. I have enjoyed working with her and, even when we have not seen eye-to-eye on policy, I have always held her candor and thoughtfulness in the highest regard. She’s been a wonderful colleague and friend. I wish her nothing but the best and sincerely thank her for her service.