The People Speak

Posted by Michael Copps on July 17, 2017


Logo for the Benton FoundationThis blog was posted in partnership with the Benton Foundation.

The people’s verdict is in.  A slew of recent polls make clear that most Americans, nearly 80%, support keeping the network neutrality rules that are the foundation of an open internet.  These are the rules passed by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in 2015, under the leadership of then-chairman Tom Wheeler, that keep the big Internet Service Providers (ISPs) like Comcast, AT&T, and Verizon from determining your internet experience, because they’d rather do that themselves than let you do it.  Net neutrality rules prohibit blocking or throttling content.  And they keep ISPs from favoring their affiliates, corporate friends, and those who can afford sky-high broadband prices with fast lanes on the net, while the rest of us are told to travel in the slow lane.

Backing up the polls, the July 12 “Day of Action to Save Net Neutrality” saw millions of Americans contacting both the FCC and Congress.  Experts at Fight for the Future report five million emails and 120,000 calls flooded Capitol Hill that day.  Two million new comments were added to the 5 million-plus that were already at the FCC.  That was a record day for any issue at the Commission, and more comments than for any previous proceeding in the FCC’s 84 year history.

And, no, it’s not only Democrats who feel strongly about the issue.  According to Civis Analytics, somewhere around 70% of Republicans favor network neutrality and rules to guarantee it.  I spent years as a commissioner at the FCC and since traveling the country and talking to citizens.  I learned early on that what is so often partisan inside the fabled DC Beltway is not so divisive where most people actually live.  I found that to be true on media consolidation, and I find it equally true on net neutrality. 

I would recommend both Congress and the Trump Administration start paying attention to this.  I am altogether certain that many of those voters in “rust belt” cities and rural areas hit so hard by economic dislocation and joblessness don’t favor corporate America’s current banquet being served up by the White House and government agencies.  I haven’t talked to anyone in those parts of the country who supports paying $232 a year for a cable set-top box, or who like rising broadband and cable bills, or who think we ought to turn the Internet over to a few bloated gate-keeping companies obsessed with maximizing profits at the expense of serving consumers. 

If I were a legislator in Washington, I think I would be very skeptical of opposing something that such large majorities of voters favor.  Goodness knows, those running for re-election next year have enough to explain on a host of issues without adding net neutrality to their plates.   

I must say that I was deeply disappointed at the lack of mainstream media reporting on the Day of Action.  Even our most widely read national newspapers dropped the ball, most not mentioning it—or, if they did, offering a small piece in the Business Section(!) about how various corporate players might be affected. And I searched the evening network “news” programs that I watch in search of some coverage, to no avail.

That made me mad.  But what made me even madder was seeing an AT&T ad saying the company supported the Day of Action!  We all expect to be misled by corporate advertisements, but this was such outlandish duplicity that the company ought to be ashamed of itself.  (Note: I don’t expect it to be.)  It’s like a slaughterhouse taking out an ad supporting PETA.  It’s also beyond the pale. 

Net neutrality is not the only thing the mini-Trump FCC is out to eliminate.  The majority has already loosened an important media ownership rule and has a notice of impending action out there to do in more, maybe most, of these rules.   This is going on while the Commission reviews a proposed multi-billion merger between Sinclair Broadcasting and Tribune.  Sinclair is the most powerful and dangerous company many people have never heard of.  But post-merger it will own 215 TV stations around the country and be able to reach as much as seven of every 10 Americans.  That exceeds the legal number the rules allow Sinclair to own, but apparently the company expects those rules to be gone before the final vote on their acquisition.  Sinclair also comes with the reputation of less than stellar news, of replacing community news with news from the home office, and even writing corporate editorials which the stations are then expected to run throughout the country. The law says the FCC can only approve such deals if they find a public interest benefit to be derived from them.  Where, oh where, is the public interest benefit of this ridiculous transaction? 

As for the proposed AT&T purchase of Time-Warner, the FCC is interpreting the statutes as not permitting it to look at the merger.  It strikes me that when a deal combines the distribution powerhouse of AT&T with the content behemoth of Time-Warner (the classic definition of monopoly), someone should be drilling down on the public interest ramifications.  They are many and dangerous.

The history of media consolidations and burgeoning market monopolies has ill-served our country.  It has wiped out thousands of local media outlets, led to the elimination of perhaps one-third to one-half of our newsroom employees since 2000, closed bureaus in statehouses around the country (where legislation is actually occurring, as opposed to the inaction of Congress), and 
supplanted deep-dive investigation journalism with a pabulum of infotainment insulting to the nation.  The last Presidential election was run of, by, and for the TV giants, with the result that we had an almost issues-free reality show instead of an informed citizenry discussing the serious challenges that confront us.  Self-government can’t make it on such thin gruel.

But now the people are speaking.  That’s good because real reform comes from the grassroots, and even in this top-heavy, big money environment in which we live, the grassroots can still make the difference.  If we turn The Day of Action into Weeks of Action to Save Net Neutrality, we will not only win the battle for an open internet, but for a more open society, too.

Let’s keep it going!

Office: Common Cause National

Issues: Media and Democracy

Tags: Net Neutrality

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