Big Telco’s fury over FCC plan to infuse telecoms policy with facts

Dickey Amendments for everything.

Cory Doctorow
6 min readNov 10, 2023


An old photo of a 19th century telephone transmission tower with thousands of wires streaming off of it. The three wise monkeys are arrayed around it, with string-connected tin cans joining them. The top spires of the tower all sport American flags. Image: (modified) CC BY-SA 2.0: — Mike Mozart (modified) http

I’ll be at the Studio City branch of the LA Public Library on Monday, November 13 at 1830hPT to launch my new novel, The Lost Cause. There’ll be a reading, a talk, a surprise guest (!!) and a signing, with books on sale. Tell your friends! Come on down!

Reality has a distinct anti-conservative bias, but conservatives have an answer: when the facts don’t support your policies, just get different facts. Who needs evidence-based policy when you can have policy-based evidence?

Take gun violence. Conservatives tell us that “an armed society is a polite society,” which means that the more guns you have, the less gun violence you’ll experience. To prevent reality from unfairly staining this pristine ideological mind-palace with facts, conservatives passed the Dickey Amendment, which had the effect of banning the CDC from gathering stats on American gun-violence. No stats, no violence!

Policy-based evidence is at the core of so many cherished conservative beliefs, like the idea that queer people (and not youth pastors) are responsible for the sexual abuse of children, or the idea that minimum wages (and not monopolies) decrease jobs, or the idea that socialized medicine (and not private equity) leads to death panels:

The Biden administration features a sizable cohort of effective regulators, whose job is to gather evidence and then make policy from it:

Fortunately for conservatives, not every Biden agency is led by competent, honest brokers — the finance wing of the Dems got to foist some of their most ghoulish members upon the American people, including a no-fooling cheerleader for mass foreclosure:

And these same DINOs reached across the aisle to work with Republicans to keep some of the most competent, principled agency leaders from being seated, like the remarkable Gigi Sohn, targeted by a homophobic smear campaign funded by the telco industry, who feared her presence on the FCC:

The telcos are old hands at this stuff. Long before the gun control debates, Ma Bell had figured out that a monopoly over Americans’ telecoms was a license to print money, and they set to corrupting agencies from the FCC to the DoJ:

Reality has a vicious anti-telco bias. Think of Net Neutrality, the idea that if you pay an ISP for internet service, they should make a best effort to deliver the data you request, rather than deliberately slowing down your connection in the hopes that you’ll seek out data from the company’s preferred partners, who’ve paid a bribe for “premium delivery.”

This shouldn’t even be up for debate. The idea that your ISP should prioritize its preferred data over your preferred data is as absurd as the idea that a taxi-driver should slow down your rides to any pizzeria except Domino’s, which has paid it for “premium service.” If your cabbie circled the block twice every time you asked for a ride to Massimo’s Pizza, you’d be rightly pissed — and the cab company would be fined.

Back when Ajit Pai was Trump’s FCC chairman, he made killing Net Neutrality his top priority. But regulators aren’t allowed to act without evidence, so Pai had to seek out as much policy-based evidence as he could. To that end, Pai allowed millions of obviously fake comments to be entered into the docket (comments from dead people, one million comments from address, comments from sitting Senators who disavowed them, etc). Then Pai actively — and illegally — obstructed the NY Attorney General’s investigation into the fraud:

The pursuit of policy-based evidence is greatly aided by the absence of real evidence. If you’re gonna fill the docket with made-up nonsense, it helps if there’s no truthful stuff in there to get in the way. To that end, the FCC has systematically avoided collecting data on American broadband delivery, collecting as little objective data as possible:

This willful ignorance was a huge boon to the telcos, who demanded billions in fed subsidies for “underserved areas” and then just blew it on anything they felt like — like the $45 billion of public money they wasted on obsolete copper wiring for rural “broadband” expansion under Trump:

Like other cherished conservative delusions, the unsupportable fantasy that private industry is better at rolling out broadband is hugely consequential. Before the pandemic, this meant that America — the birthplace of the internet — had the slowest, most expensive internet service of any G8 country. During the lockdown, broadband deserts meant that millions of poor and rural Americans were cut off from employment, education, health care and family:

Pai’s response was to commit another $8 billion in public funds to broadband expansion, but without any idea of where the broadband deserts were — just handing more money over to monopoly telcos to spend as they see fit, with zero accountability:

All that changed after the 2020 election. Pai was removed from office (and immediately blocked me on Twitter) (oh, diddums), and his successor, Biden FCC chair Jessic Rosenworcel, started gathering evidence, soliciting your broadband complaints:

And even better, your broadband speed measurements:

All that evidence spurred Congress to act. In 2021, Congress ordered the FCC to investigate and punish discrimination in internet service provision, “based on income level, race, ethnicity, color, religion, or national origin”:

In other words, Congress ordered the FCC to crack down on “digital redlining.” That’s when historic patterns of underinvestment in majority Black neighborhoods and other underserved communities create broadband deserts, where internet service is slower and more expensive than service literally across the street:

FCC Chair Rosenworcel has published the agency’s plan for fulfilling this obligation. It’s pretty straightforward: they’re going to collect data on pricing, speed and other key service factors, and punish companies that practice discrimination:

This has provoked howls of protests from the ISP cartel, their lobbying org, and their Republican pals on the FCC. Writing for Ars Technica, Jon Brodkin rounds up a selection of these objections:

There’s GOP FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr, with a Steve Bannon-seque condemnation of “the administrative state [taking] effective control of all Internet services and infrastructure in the US. He’s especially pissed that the FCC is going to regulate big landlords who force all their tenants to get slow, expensive from ISPs who offer kickbacks to landlords:

The response from telco lobbyists NCTA is particularly, nakedly absurd: they demand that the FCC exempt price from consideration of whether an ISP is practicing discrimination, calling prices a “non-technical aspect of broadband service”:

I mean, sure — it’s easy to prove that an ISP doesn’t discriminate against customers if you don’t ask how much they charge! “Sure, you live in a historically underserved neighborhood, but technically we’ll give you a 100mb fiber connection, provided you give us $20m to install it.”

This is a profoundly stupid demand, but that didn’t stop the wireless lobbying org CTIA from chiming in with the same talking points, demanding that the FCC drop plans to collect data on “pricing, deposits, discounts, and data caps,” evaluation of price is unnecessary in the competitive wireless marketplace”:

Individual cartel members weighed in as well, with AT&T and Verizon threatening to sue over the rules, joined by yet another lobbying group, USTelecom:

The next step in this playbook is whipping up the low-information base by calling this “socialism” and mobilizing some of the worst-served, most-gouged people in America to shoot themselves in the face (again), to own the libs:

If you’d like an essay-formatted version of this post to read or share, here’s a link to it on, my surveillance-free, ad-free, tracker-free blog: