Librarians Call Foul on FCC Internet Policy Actions

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It’s not just that the Federal Communications Commission under the Trump administration wants to rewrite Internet policy that has librarians concerned, it is that the FCC also wants to rewrite history. In a statement this week, the American Library Association criticized the FCC (now under Trump appointee Ajit Pai’s leadership) for revoking a key Obama-era program expansion, and for retracting a number of the agency’s recent reports.

The ALA statement comes after Pai, on February 3, revoked designations made under the “Lifeline Broadband Provider” program, and ordered the retraction of multiple reports, including the E-rate Modernization Progress Report and Improving the Nation’s Digital Infrastructure.

“While new FCC leadership may have new policy directions, the public record should not be permanently altered,” Julie Todaro, ALA president, said. “Governmental agencies must be accountable in this regard. We urge the reversal of the retraction decisions and an agreement that the FCC will not order the removal of any other documents from the public record. Such actions undermine the credibility of the FCC and Chairman Pai’s recent move to increase transparency of the Commission’s rulemaking.”

In March of last year, ALA called the FCC’s 2016 Lifeline modernization order a critical milestone in helping to bring opportunity to underserved communities. The order had expanded a Reagan-era program (which, since 1985, has provided a discount on phone service for qualifying low-income consumers) to include broadband service. And in 2014, the library community praised then FCC Tom Wheeler’s proposal to increase funding to wire schools and libraries with high-speed Internet connections, via a $1.5 billion boost to the program known as E-Rate.

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It is estimated that more than 90% of U.S. libraries have used E-Rate, and ALA’s Washington Office Director Emily Sheketoff had called Wheeler’s proposal “incredibly momentous” and important to the future of libraries and schools. In the rescinded FCC 2017 progress report, dated January 17, FCC officials said the E-rate increases have had a “rapid and widepread impact” with nearly 50,000 schools and libraries receiving wi-fi support in 2015, compared to “zero” support for the previous two funding years. E-rate is largely funded by small fees on consumer phone bills.

It is unclear what the FCC’s retraction of the E-rate progress report might mean for E-rate funding going forward, but surely librarians and educators will be paying attention to what happens next.

“The American Library Association (ALA) is dismayed by these actions to reduce digital opportunity and to revise the public record,” said Todaro. “Full and public debate with the accompanying historical record preserved on these foundational Internet issues that affect every person in this country should be the standard we expect and demand.”

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