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Senate pushes through controversial FCC confirmation

The Republican-led Senate voted to install a new FCC commissioner, which could slow down Democrats' plans to reinstate net neutrality under the Biden administration.

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Samuel Corum/Getty Images

The Senate voted Tuesday to confirm a controversial nomination to fill the Republican seat on the Federal Communications Commission, in spite of opposition from Democratic lawmakers and advocacy groups who say the vote should wait until next year. 

The confirmation of Nathan Simington by the Republican-controlled Senate will likely set up the incoming Biden administration's FCC for deadlock on many key issues, such as net neutrality. The 49-46 vote largely fell along party lines. 

Current FCC Chairman Ajit Pai announced in November that he'll be stepping down in January when president-elect Joe Biden takes the oath of office. This will leave two Republicans and two Democrats on the FCC, with neither party having a majority. If Republicans retain control of the Senate following the two run-off senate races in Georgia, it could delay the confirmation of another Democrat on the FCC. 

Many Democrats and advocacy groups also say Simington is unqualified for the job. 

During a virtual protest this week, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat from Connecticut, called Simginton a "dangerous" nominee to the FCC. 

"Simington has proven himself an adversary, not an advocate for online access," Blumenthal said. "He is conflicted, unprepared and unqualified."

Advocacy groups Public Knowledge, Fight for the Future, and MediaJustice joined in the protest on Monday.

"Nathan Simington has no qualifications beyond his loyalty to an outgoing, wannabe autocrat," Evan Greer, deputy director of Fight for the Future, said in a statement "And it's clear that he would likely use his post to continue Trump's senseless attacks on the First Amendment and Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, one of the most important laws protecting free expression and human rights in the digital age. "

Simington was nominated to the FCC by President Donald Trump after Trump abruptly withdrew his nomination for the renomination of current Republican Commissioner Mike O'Rielly. O'Rielly's nomination was pulled after he'd questioned the president's request for the FCC to reexamine Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act. This law provides a shield to online publishers from liability for content generated by users. Trump issued an executive order in May directing the FCC to make rules limiting these protections after he accused Twitter of censoring him when the social media giant put a fact-check label on one of his tweets. 

Simginton served briefly at the National Telecommunications and Information Administration as a senior advisor. He's said publicly that he played a role in drafting Trump's executive order. 

In October, Pai said the FCC would move forward in examining Trump's executive order, which calls on the agency to regulate social media companies. It's unclear if the agency will move forward on its rule-making plans. 

The two Democrats currently serving on the FCC, Jessica Rosenworcel and Geoffrey Starks, oppose plans to make rules under Section 230. They've said the FCC lacks authority to make such rules. 

Consumer advocacy groups worry that Simington's confirmation will slow the technology agenda of the incoming Biden administration. Reversing the 2017 repeal of net neutrality rules and reinstating Title II authority at the FCC to give the agency oversight over broadband companies are top on the list of items for Democrats in the new administration.

"Nathan Simington's confirmation to the FCC risks the agency's ability to function effectively and will likely result in painful consequences for consumers who rely on broadband -- and that means everyone," Greg Guice, director of government affairs at Public Knowledge, said in a statement.

NCTA, which represents the cable industry, congratulated Simington on his confirmation. 

"Mr. Simington joins the FCC at a time when our national commitment to connect every American to broadband is more vital than ever," Michael Powell, president and CEO of NCTA, said in a statement. "We look forward to working with him and his colleagues to find creative solutions that will promote private sector investment and innovation rather than returning to obsolete regulatory models of the past that would only stifle broadband deployment."