The Internet's Future Is Now

Posted by Michael Copps on November 24, 2014


Logo for the Benton Foundation
This blog was posted in partnership with the Benton Foundation

So 2014 will pass into history without the FCC stepping up to the plate to ensure an Open Internet.  Think the of the good history the Commission could have made for itself.  Instead we got more delay and more uncertainty about whether Title II net neutrality will ever see the light of day.

The hoped-for scenario now is that progress will come at the January 2015 FCC monthly meeting.  Perhaps, even as you read this, the Commission is reworking its notably deficient and wildly unpopular proposal from earlier this year.  There is no reason for this process—if indeed this is the process now—to take long.  The agency is expert on every aspect of telecommunication law; it has been amassing a comprehensive Title I/Title II/Section 706 record for more than a dozen years; and there are no new arguments to be made that haven’t been made many times before.

Time is not the friend of the Open Internet.  Pushing a decision off gives the well-heeled Internet Service Providers more time to lobby and more time to develop their gate-keeping skills.  All the while, the political climate in Washington deteriorates, and who know what crisis of shut-downs or other kabuki theater will make action more difficult then than it is now?  Prolonging a decision beyond January would be a huge mistake.  The law, strong majorities of the American people, and the President of the United States cry out to Chairman Wheeler and his colleagues to do this right and do it now.  That means Title II classification without delay.

Since we have another month, in the best-case scenario, and maybe more, I do have one suggestion for the Chairman.  It’s to check off one box about which the Commission has been woefully negligent.  That means taking himself and his four colleagues outside the Beltway to talk to citizens who will actually have to live with the net neutrality decision the FCC will be making.  Previous Commissions, even Republican-led ones, did at least a grudging few such outings.  Now, with the most important vote in a generation confronting it, people look around and don’t see the Commission anywhere and are denied the chance for face-to-face interaction with the decision-makers who will cast this all-important vote.  There is nothing wrong with meeting with the usual suspects inside the Beltway—but there is something radically amiss when an agency charged with overseeing almost our entire communications infrastructure, be it wire, cable, or radio waves (that covers just about the whole nine yards, doesn’t it?) can’t spend a few evenings out on the road, talking with citizens and explaining what they are doing back in Washington.  I call upon the Chairman to set aside some time between now and the big vote to visit with America.  I guarantee him and his colleagues they will learn a lot.

I have spent a good bit of my time in recent months traveling the country on the Open Internet issues.  I listen and I learn.  I also try to tell it like I see it.  And from these travels, I see it more clearly every day.  I never come away without having learned something new.

Numerous friends have suggested that I share some of what I say on the road with readers of this blog.  I feel honored to be asked to do so. Just last week, I was in San Francisco at a packed town hall meeting and here is the heart of what I had to say.

Remarks at “Bay Area Speaks: A Peoples’ Hearing on the Future Of The Internet"

This state is home to a long, proud line of progressives who have been in the vanguard of American reform through the generations. History gives us Hiram Johnson, Dolores Huerta, Earl Warren, and Harvey Milk and, in our own time, champions like my good friend Anna Eshoo (who I dearly wish had been able to overcome the inertia of seniority last week to become the Ranking Democrat on the House Commerce Committee.  That would been so good for us and for the issues we care about) and courageous leaders like Doris Matsui and other Californians serving today nationally, at the state level, and locally.)  These are leaders who recognize that real change comes not as a gift from Washington, DC, but from the righteous insistence of everyday people at the grassroots. It’s never been corporate influence peddlers who made our union more perfect. It’s always been folks like these, folks like you, who expanded voter suffrage, civil rights, women’s rights, labor rights, the minimum wage, disability rights, environmental rights, and LGBT rights.

In all great battles for reform, the forces arrayed against us have always been formidable—the 19th century robber barons and their latter-day copycats like the Koch brothers, Wall Street’s titans of banking, and special interests’ money and lobbyists walking the halls of political power all across the nation.  But when the hour of action was upon us, we rallied.  As a renowned community organizer who went on to become President once reminded us, we rallied in Seneca, and Selma, and Stonewall.

Now we must rally again.  For many causes—like expanded opportunity for all, stemming the rising tide of inequality, developing a welcoming immigration system, saving our planet, and public education. But to win any of these fights we must first stop Internet gatekeepers and media monopolists from utterly decimating our civic dialogue. Because if they can unilaterally decide what news we see and what we don’t; who can advocate online and who is slowed down or even completely blocked; who can find out about rallies like we participated in tonight; whether online fast lanes become the playground of the privileged few while the rest of us are consigned to the slow lane, we can’t solve any of the daunting challenges confronting our country. Not with the media we currently have. And not with an Internet cut short of its amazing potential. I am 100% convinced of this. We can’t even foster an intelligent national dialogue about these challenges when a corporatized media and a cableized Internet are dumbing-down the news and information that are the absolutely essential prerequisites of successful self-government.

It’s all on the line right now. The Federal Communications Commission will soon make decisions that determine whether the Internet becomes the platform for 21st century democracy or whether it goes down the road of consolidation and corporate control that ruined so much of radio, television, and cable.

The Commission is discussing whether to allow Comcast, already the largest cable company in the land, to buy the second largest provider, Time Warner Cable.  How does that sound for a consumer-friendly marriage? I voted against Comcast’s previous merger with NBC-Universal because that represented too much power in the hands of too few. Now Comcast wants even more; they want it all.  Make no mistake: this deal would be a disaster for consumers, diversity, and innovation.

At the same time, the FCC is writing “Open Internet” (‘net neutrality’) rules. Should the FCC move forward with its proposed plan to allow fast lanes for the few, it would be—and I don’t use this word lightly—a catastrophe for citizens and a total short-circuiting of the awesome power of the Internet. Only those with deep pockets would be able to speak—or be heard.  Imagine that crucial local blog you depend on being consigned to the slow lane. Or websites you depend on being blocked or throttled.  The proposed plan would threaten the effectiveness of the very tools that allow us to tell our stories; that allow diverse groups to cut through racist caricatures and speak for themselves; that tell the truths that corporate media won’t.  I watched as citizen journalists—not the mainstream media—brought to light the abuses of the Oakland Police Department—and, hopefully, advanced the cause of reform. 

So let me ask you:

Does anyone in this audience want Internet gatekeepers censoring your online access?

Does anyone want fast lanes online for just the 1%?

Does anyone think Comcast needs to grow even bigger?

Me neither.  But to keep those bad things from happening, we must act now. The good news is we are making progress. Nearly 4 million Americans have already contacted the FCC on net neutrality. And just last week the President spoke out very strongly for Title II reclassification, a real game changer.

We’ve never been closer to winning this fight—but we’ve never been up against more potent foes than Comcast, Verizon, and AT&T. So your job and mine is to keep the pressure growing right up until the moment the FCC votes. This particular Commission is capable of doing the right thing, but it will only do the right thing if it hears the people speak.

This is an issue that unites people of all walks of life. It’s not a red state-blue state division.  A just-released survey out of the University of Delaware shows that 85 % of Republicans are against a fast lane/slow lane Internet.  That indicates to me that the antics and hysteria of people like Ted Cruz jumping up and down in Washington are totally out-of-step with the very people he purports to speak for.  The issue unites the startups and, reportedly, even some of the greybeards of American business are starting to come around.  More and more people understand that this issue is about a stronger economy, innovation, opportunity for all, and democracy itself.

So I close with something we can do right here tonight.  Organizers in the room have FCC comment sheets. There’s still time for you to make your voice heard. Sign on, add your name to the growing chorus, and we’ll make sure it gets to the FCC.

If you take away just one thing from what I’ve said tonight, I would like it be this: every issue we care about depends upon getting our media right and keeping our Internet open.  Every issue.  Real reform depends upon media reform.  Democracy depends upon media democracy. Together we must, together we can, win this crusade.

Thank you.

Michael J. Copps

Office: Common Cause National

Issues: Media and Democracy

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