January 24, 2019

Net Neutrality Offers Bipartisan Opportunity

Photo from Flickr/Kin Lane.

At a time of crippling political division, the recent Federal Communications Commission (FCC) vote on its initiative called “Restoring Internet Freedom” provides a rare opportunity for cooperation across party lines.

That’s because 83 percent of Americans (including 75 percent of Republicans) disagree with the FCC, according to a poll conducted by researchers at the University of Maryland. The poll shows that, when presented with arguments from both sides of the issue, Americans overwhelmingly support “net neutrality,” a policy that went into full effect in 2015 before being reversed by the FCC on Dec. 14.

Members of Congress should heed this rare bipartisan consensus and overturn the FCC’s decision.

Net neutrality is the principle that all information on the internet should be treated equally by internet service providers (ISPs) and be freely accessible to consumers. As a policy, it prevented Charter Spectrum, Comcast, AT&T and other ISPs from favoring, restricting or blocking our access to specific websites. It also stops them from allowing or forcing certain companies to pay extra for faster internet service. Under the new rules, ISPs no longer face these limitations.

The FCC’s repeal of net neutrality has garnered such strong opposition mainly because it gives ISPs the freedom to charge more for access to certain aspects of the internet, or even to promote websites they own by blocking access to competitors.

This is not a purely hypothetical scenario, as AT&T briefly blocked FaceTime on Apple devices for certain customers in 2012. Critics fear that while Google, Facebook and other large corporations would be able to pay more to offer faster service to consumers, smaller companies would be forced to offer a slower product than their larger rivals and would risk being driven out of business. Another main concern is that some consumers could be priced out of access to parts of the internet that they currently use at no extra cost.

Opponents of net neutrality argue that it is a burdensome government regulation that stifles innovation and discourages the spread of internet service to underserved areas. They contend that existing public disclosure requirements for ISPs are sufficient for them to be held accountable by consumers in the free market.

In a competitive free market we would, in fact, be able to punish an ISP for blocking or restricting our favorite websites by switching to a different company that offers better service. The trouble is, when it comes to ISPs, most Americans have very few options. Most of us are lucky if we even have a choice between two companies that provide high- speed internet. As long as ISPs maintain monopolies  in our local communities, there is very little that can stop them from restricting access or raising prices.

This severe lack of competition among ISPs is at the core of why net neutrality is necessary. Federal, state and local governments must act to encourage more ISPs to enter the market, but until there is real competition we need regulations to preserve internet freedom as we know it.

The FCC vote is not the end of this debate. Democratic senators are planning to introduce legislation to erase the FCC’s new policy under the Congressional Review Act, and a number of state attorneys general have announced their intention to file lawsuits to block its implementation. While there was a congressional letter supporting the FCC, it was signed by fewer than half of the Republicans in the House of Representatives. Some Republican lawmakers have even begun to speak out in support of net neutrality. While this opposition (or lack of support) does not come close to reflecting the full 75 percent of Republican voters who are against the FCC decision, it does suggest that bipartisan cooperation is possible.

America is a nation so divided that bipartisan agreement on anything is cause for celebration. When it comes to net neutrality, we have more than agreement, we have a consensus among 83 percent of Americans. While reversing the FCC vote is not a solution to the lack of competition among ISPs, it is a necessary step to protect consumers in the meantime. Congress should take that step.

Max Samarov is director of research and campus strategy for StandWithUs. This article represents his personal views.

FCC Chief Tom Wheeler is five-sixths of a superhero

The last best hope to stop Big Money's rout of American democracy is a former trade group lobbyist who’s reluctant to stretch his spandex superhero suit too thin.

Plutocrats have been on a roll for a while in the U.S., and campaign finance reform is in full retreat. Though Americans hate money’s “obscene” role in politics, according to a new New York Times/CBS “>says a Democratic commissioner on the Federal Election Commission, which is “perpetually locked in 3-to-3 ties along party lines.”  Its chair, Ann M. Ravel, “>said CBS president Les Moonves in a February investor call, “and thank God the rancor has already begun.” Campaign spending will exceed $5 billion – a windfall that goes straight to TV station owners – and that’s just for the presidential race. Soon, ads that will make you want to take a shower will be pumping political sewage 24/7. Don’t look to TV news to fact-check them; with few “>it did in Philadelphia last year, by 45 to 1.  

Worse, those ads will be funded anonymously. Many of the slimiest and most deceptive will end with something like this:  Paid for by Americans for an American America.  We will have no clue what these anodynely named front groups really are or whose dark money is behind them, because the law doesn’t require transparency or accountability. We’ll get good and mad at the dog crap soiling democracy’s lawn, but we won’t even know whom to shame.  

What are we doing to prevent the anti-democratic horror show now unfolding? In the Citizens United opinions, eight Supreme Court Justices “>know that elected officials are unwilling “to fight the system they inhabit or to change the rules they have already mastered.”

But the Federal Communication Commission already possesses the power to rescue us from dark money.  Tomorrow morning, “>says, “and I’m looking for company, Tom.”

When President Obama appointed Wheeler in 2013, my heart sank. I wanted a trustbuster and consumer advocate in that job; instead, we got the former head of the Grocery Manufacturers of America and of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association.  I’m so glad I was so wrong about him.  In less than two years at the FCC, he’s made bold moves, and scored some important victories, on five key fronts.

Competition:  Wheeler’s disappointing predecessor, Obama-appointee Julius Genachowski, submitted to Comcast’s takeover of NBC-Universal.  But Comcast abandoned its subsequent bid to acquire Time Warner Cable when regulators at Wheeler’s FCC and at the Department of Justice were poised to block Comcast from becoming the “>set up net neutrality to fail, paving the way for Internet providers to extract pay-to-play fast-lane tolls from big tech and content companies, leaving everyone else to suffer slowmo buffering. But Wheeler, bucking fierce industry and partisan opposition, and buoyed by four million public comments triggered in part by a “>crashed the FCC’s servers, led the commission to classify the Internet as a public utility. No wonder Wheeler’s successor at the cable lobby, Michael Powell, who was also George W. Bush’s appointee as F.C.C. chair, is now “>privacy is unassailable.”  A few weeks later, the commission put Internet Service Providers on notice that the F.C.C. will ““>proposed that the Reagan-era Lifeline program, which subsidizes the telephone service of 12 million low-income households, be extended to broadband access.  Within days, Republicans “>pre-empted industry-backed state laws that prevented underserved communities like Wilson, North Carolina and Chattanooga,  Tennessee from expanding municipal broadband networks.

Robocalls: On June 18, the FCC will vote on Wheeler’s “>said a couple of weeks ago, when asked if the FCC will use the authority it already has to require disclosure of the secret sponsors of political ads, “we have a long list of telecommunications-related decisions that we are dealing with right now, and that will be our focus.”  He punted to the Hill:  “Well, if the Congress acts, then we will clearly follow the mandate of Congress.”  But as he had to know, just two days before he said that the House Communications and Technology subcommittee, on a party-line vote, martyk@jewishjournal.com.

U.S. regulators vote to set new, tougher net neutrality rules

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission on Thursday voted 3-2 along party lines, with Democrats in support, to set new so-called net neutrality rules that would regulate Internet service providers more like traditional telephone companies.

The rules ban Internet providers from blocking and unfairly slowing down any web traffic on their pipes or striking deals with content companies for faster or smoother downloads, among other things. Republicans argue the broad scope of the rules represents government overreach.

The vote comes after a year of jostling by cable and telecom companies and net neutrality advocates, which included web startups. It culminated in the FCC receiving a record-setting 4 million public comments and a call from President Barack Obama urging them to adopt the strongest rules possible.

Marty Kaplan: Just Like the Internet You See in the Movies

No Web sites that choke your browser.  No waiting for YouTube clips to buffer.  No email attachments too big to send.  No files that take forever to download.  No “Loading – please wait” messages, or spinning beach balls, or slowwwwly lengthening bars meant to tame your mounting impatience.

That’s how the Internet works in the movies.  On laptops and cell phones and the rest of the small screens we watch on the big screen, the Internet is a tantalizingly perfected version of the hiccupping marvel we know now.

In a handful of years at most, the blinding speed and reliability we see in the movies will be available here in reality.  Too bad it won’t be available on the Internet.

Last week, Google and Verizon ” target=”_hplink”>touted their pact, which echoes what ” target=”_hplink”>Comcast also have in mind for us, as a plan to protect consumers from being shafted in precisely the way that Google and Verizon will be enabled by their plan to shaft us.

You would think that some consumer protection agency would stop them.  Federal Communications Commission to the rescue!  But George W. Bush’s FCC voluntarily gave up any authority over the Internet.  They voted to classify the Internet as an information system – something like the Associated Press wire service, or Bloomberg, over which they have no jurisdiction – rather than something like, well, the Internet.

But wait:  Isn’t there a new Administration in town?  Didn’t President Obama make an explicit campaign ” target=”_hplink”>top all-time donor to Congress, surpassing Goldman Sachs and Citigroup.  Verizon has given more to the campaigns of congressmen and senators than General Electric, Pfizer or the National Rifle Association.  It’s no surprise that a majority of members of Congress – Democrats and Republicans alike – have written to Chairman Genachowski demanding that he cave to the industry, and to leave the Internet’s future in their own well-greased hands.

This battle isn’t just about money.  Sure, the phone, cable and wireless companies stand to make a fortune if they can jack up the price that content companies and consumers have to pay in order to send and receive entertainment online; that’s why they’re spending a fortune to stop the FCC and Congress from stopping them.  But this battle is also about keeping free speech and free enterprise free.

Right now, the Internet treats all content – including all political and religious speech, and all e-commerce – the same.  You can be a blogger whose rants are read only by people you’re related to, or you can be pumping out videos riling up tens of millions of your followers, but the Internet is neutral; it doesn’t play favorites.  You can be a start-up with two employees, or you can be Amazon; the Net Neutrality that exists today means that all entrepreneurs are competing on a level online playing field.

Without the Net Neutrality we have now, there’s no guarantee that all content will continue to get the same fair shake.  Are you comfortable with handing over to Big Media the ” target=”_hplink”>Norman Lear professor of entertainment, media and society at the martyk@jewishjournal.com.