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Is politics tearing apart the FCC? A retiring commissioner says yes.

Federal Communications Commission Commissioner Mignon Clyburn uses a megaphone to address demonstrators outside of the 31st Annual Chairman's Dinner to show their support for net neutrality on December 7, 2017. The protesters gathered in opposition to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai's plans to scrap Obama-era net neutrality protections. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

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Mignon Clyburn has been a commissioner on the Federal Communications Commission for nine years, which is forever if you’re counting in tech time. At the FCC, she’s been a staunch advocate for consumers, backing net neutrality rules and an expansion of the Lifeline program to subsidize broadband for low-income people. But some of the policies she backed have since been reversed. Clyburn talked with Marketplace Tech host Molly Wood about her tenure at the FCC and how it’s changed. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation. 

Molly Wood: I think I have to ask what we’re all wondering, which is why leave now?  

Mignon Clyburn: Well, I believe it’s time. And I also believe that I can be more effective on the outside. You know that for the past 15 or so months I’ve been on the other side of the winning debate when it comes to just, reasonable and fair rates for inmates and their families, when it comes to looking out for those individuals who cannot afford a dial tone, with the Lifeline program that would also have enabled them to have broadband affordably. And so, I just found that this was the time, it was the place for me to leave and to be an advocate, a more effective advocate, on the outside versus at the FCC.

Wood: That feels like it starts to answer my next question, which is that during your tenure at the FCC, you are known as such a fierce advocate for consumers. Do you feel like the work that you did, or some of the work you did, including briefly as the first woman to chair the commission, is being undone?

Clyburn: Well, a lot of the things that we put forth that were hard fought, they have been reversed. But I am uplifted because there are a number of state attorneys general who have said, “Look, the FCC, we believe you are on the wrong side of history, that you are not doing what it takes to protect the privacy of individuals in this nation, to provide broadband-enabled services in which it’s a legally sustainable framework. We believe that you’ve got it wrong.” So you notice 23 attorneys general have weighed in and said, “We’re going to sue the FCC because of the repeal of net neutrality.” And so those states said, “The FCC is punting and won’t do anything about it? Then we will.”

Wood: Is some of what’s happening and some of the abrupt reversal partly a factor of the way that the FCC is set up as what is essentially, or unavoidably, a partisan body because you get a majority of commissioners? Or has that partisanship crept in during your tenure?

Clyburn: Well, it’s interesting the way you phrased the question, because I think I have to answer yes to all of the above. No. 1, the chair is chosen by the president of the United States. There are five members of the FCC, and there is always a 3-2 balance. So you are going to have policies that reflect the tenor and the objectives of whoever is in the White House. That’s No. 1. No. 2, I think the country realizes, whether it embraces it or not, that we have naturally become more partisan. And I find that unfortunate, because what happens is these agencies are becoming more and more hard wired. If I disagree with one or two things in the item, then I vote against the entire item. That is not productive. But what we are finding increasingly is that it’s an all-or-nothing approach to regulation, and we all lose when it’s all or nothing.

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