From "Obamaphones" to an attack on internet access: The strange afterlife of a right-wing meme

Under Trump, a program subsidizing internet access for low-income Americans may be threatened. Thanks, Obama!

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published February 7, 2017 9:59AM (EST)

 (Getty/Alex Wong)
(Getty/Alex Wong)

This past summer the United Nations declared that internet access is a human right, releasing a nonbinding resolution that unequivocally condemns "measures to intentionally prevent or disrupt access to or dissemination of information online in violation of international human rights law" This resolution came after Barack Obama had said in 2015 that "high-speed broadband is not a luxury, it's a necessity."

While many nations — including Russia, China and Saudi Arabia — refused to sign last summer's U.N. resolution, the United States did sign it and Obama's administration made a number of moves to expand internet access to low-income Americans, as many of them struggle to pay for even the most basic level of service.

Last March the Federal Communications Commission made an important move to help achieve Obama's goals, approving a plan to make broadband more affordable for low-income households. But now Ajit Pai, whom Donald Trump picked to chair the Federal Communications Commission, appears to be making moves to take away the affordable internet access plans.

Late Friday in a move Democratic FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn characterized as a "Friday news dump," Pai told nine internet companies they are no longer allowed to provide low-cost internet service to people who qualify.

In a defensive statement, Pai justified cutting poor people off from internet access by declaring that the original program was "controversial" and characterizing it as one of many "midnight regulations" authorized by his Obama-appointed predecessor, Tom Wheeler.

“Access to broadband is increasingly critical for all Americans, no matter who they are or where they live," Pai wrote last week, in one of his first statements as FCC chair. But blocking nine companies from providing subsidized internet access to poor people casts real doubt on his sincerity.

Pai's own past suggests that he has been a longtime skeptic of efforts to expand broadband access to lower-income people. Pai also appears to have developed an unsubtle bitterness toward Wheeler and anyone who worked to make internet affordable for the working poor in this country.

First, some history: The program that Wheeler was using to expand internet access is called Lifeline and was started in 1985, when Ronald Reagan was president. Lifeline was initially intended for making telephone service available to low-income people. Throughout multiple presidential administrations, it was a little-known, inexpensive and uncontroversial program.

Then Matt Drudge, one-man disseminator of race-baiting urban legends, stepped in.

As Think Progress editor-in-chief Judd Legum chronicled in 2012, the Drudge Report ran a racist headline portraying black people as ignorant welfare cheats.


Rush Limbaugh soon joined in, claiming, "She may not know who George Washington is or Abraham Lincoln, but she knows how to get an Obama phone."

And with that, the right-wing legend of the "Obamaphone" — this supposed program of free government phones for supposed welfare leeches — was born.

As Legum pointed out, the whole "Obamaphone" thing was pure, uncut nonsense. Yes, lower-income people could apply for the Lifeline program that made it easier to obtain more affordable service — but the program was begun during a Republican presidency and continued through three subsequent administrations of both parties. Yes, the Lifeline program had been changed so that people could opt for cellphones instead of landlines — a commonsense innovation reflecting how modern people use phones — but that change was instituted in 2008, during the presidency of George W. Bush.

As we ought to understand by now, truth can never be allowed to stand in the way of a racist right-wing legend. Conservative outrage over the Lifeline program exploded. And in 2016, when the Obama administration actually did make a move to expand the Lifeline program to cover internet as well as phone service, conservatives like Pai — who was then an FCC commissioner — were ready to put up a fight.

Pai and his fellow Republican commissioner, Mike O’Rielly, immediately tried to kneecap Wheeler's efforts. Pai proposed setting a spending cap of $1.75 billion on the Lifeline program, which Phillip Berenbroick and Meredith Filak Rose at Public Knowledge, an organization that promotes expanding internet access, argued would have crippled its ability to provide adequate phone and internet access to low-income people.

"If one wanted to design a Lifeline plan that leaves tens-of-millions of the most vulnerable Americans without access to basic telephone service in the near term, without line of sight to Lifeline-supported broadband service in the long term," Berenbroick and Rose wrote, "Commissioner Pai’s plan is a blueprint for what to do."

They noted that providing the telephone service has in some years cost more than $1.75 billion on its own, so Pai's cap would have made it impossible to provide help to everyone who needs it. In addition, Pai attempted to set the pricing for Lifeline plans so high that they probably would not be affordable to most low-income families, even with the subsidy.

Pai and his fellow commissioner, Clyburn, worked out an initial compromise, but under pressure from Democrats, Clyburn dropped the compromise and voted for a more expansive program. Now millions of people who make $16,281 a year or less can get a subsidy of $9.25 a month to help pay for broadband or phone service but not for both.

Yep, this program gives low-income people less than 10 bucks a month. Pai threw a massive tantrum anyway, complaining that pressure from "the usual gaggle of left-wing, Beltway special interests" had led to "failure to clean up the waste, fraud and abuse" in a program that makes it slightly less expensive for poor people to receive internet access and phone service.

Now Pai is the FCC's chairman and already he's blocking companies from offering these subsidized plans. Pai has claimed that his move is about reducing — you guessed it! — "waste, fraud, and abuse." Considering his history, there's reason to believe this is the opening shot in a longer-term plan to make it more difficult for low-income people to go online.

Inequality in internet access can compound economic inequality in many ways.

"While many middle-class U.S. students go home to Internet access, allowing them to do research, write papers, and communicate digitally with their teachers and other students, too many lower-income children go unplugged every afternoon when school ends," as a statement released by the Obama White House in 2015 put it.

Internet access makes it easier for lower-income Americans to obtain jobs, keep up with the news, participate in politics, maintain social networks and even just pay bills and run other errands that can suck up precious time, a commodity in short supply for the working poor. There might, of course, be reasons why conservatives don't want them doing all those things.

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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