Internet Freedom in Jeopardy Unless Public Takes Action to Preserve Net Neutrality

Posted May 14, 2014

MP3 Interview with Michael Copps, former Federal Communications Commission commissioner, conducted by Scott Harris. Transcript compiled by Evan Beider.


When a Washington D.C. appeals court threw out the Federal Communications Commission’s rules on the important principle known as Net Neutrality on Jan. 14, the future of a free and open Internet in the U.S. was jeopardized. This became clear when FCC Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler proposed new rules in line with the court ruling that would allow Internet service providers to charge content providers a premium fee to access faster delivery connections to reach end users, undermining an open, democratic Internet.

Internet freedom advocates responded by organizing a campaign opposing the new rules, and the FCC was flooded with hundreds of thousands of phone calls, emails and a protest encampment outside its offices. As a result of widespread public disapproval, as well as opposition from small start-ups, as well as large companies like Google, Amazon, Yahoo, Facebook and Twitter, FCC Chair Wheeler said he would revise his original rules that will be submitted to a full commission meeting on May 15.

But Net Neutrality advocates assert that nothing short of reclassifying broadband Internet service under Title II, or “common carrier” status of the Communications Act, would preserve an open Internet for generations to come. However, lobbyists for the nation’s largest cable and phone companies, including AT&T, Comcast and Verizon have already made it known that they’ll fight such a regulatory change. Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with former FCC Commissioner Michael Copps, who served on the Commission from 2001 to 2011. Here he explains why he’s urging the public to take immediate action to preserve net neutrality and Internet freedom.

MICHAEL COPPS: Chairman Tom Wheeler – who’s the relatively new chairman of the FCC, used to head the cable association and the wireless association and is a friend of the president’s – came with a proposal for the commission, nobody has yet seen this other than other commissioners at the FCC, but they leaked a lot of it out, and lo and behold, it appeared that he was going to propose in there that there was really nothing wrong about having these arrangements where an Internet service provider could provide fast lanes for those who could pay for them, like the one percent, and everybody else, like the 99 percent, put them in the slow lane. And that’s a whole denial of the great opportunity-creating potential of the Internet and the small "d" democratic potential of the Internet.

There was a tremendous outcry against this when that news leaked out and that’s been one of the main stories here in Washington, D.C. ever since. And today we are told that the chairman circulated a second or a third draft, again nobody has really seen it, but it’s going to be reportedly a little more open-ended, and it will say, "Well, maybe we should … what do you think about going to Title 2." Although, I think, from the leaks that I’ve heard, that there’s still a presumption there that we would base it on the way Chairman Janikowski did in that ambiguous part of the law. So, we’ll have to see what’s going to happen. The whole future of the Internet, it seems to me, is at stake here and what’s decided on this network neutrality item plus the pending Time Warner Cable-Comcast merger, those two things are going to set the direction of the Internet for a long time to come, for years to come, maybe for generations to come, so, I’m pleased to see people reacting, the public reacting, but to make it really happen and to make sure at the end of the road that we get these network neutrality rules. It’s going to take a massive, massive expression from the grassroots of America that the American people don’t want this.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Commissioner Copps, in the court ruling they talked about former FCC Chair Janikowski not issuing net neutrality rules under the common carrier rules, and that’s a rule, as I understand it, that now applies to our, you know, our landline telephones, you know, for these last many decades. But how would the FCC change in designation of the Internet to common carrier fix the problem of net neutrality?

MICHAEL COPPS: Well, I don’t know that it would fix it, but it would sure … it’s a necessary first step, and this is, as you say, how we regulated plain old telephone service, that’s where telecommunications is. I think when the telecommunications law was passed in 1996, plenty of people knew that broadband was telecommunications and advanced telecommunications and thought so. And it wasn’t until after I got the commission, which was 2001, in 2002, then chairman Michael Powell, who now runs the cable association, and his majority at the commission said, "Oh, that cable modem that brings Internet service into your house, that’s not telecommunications at all, that’s an information service, take it out of Title 2, take it out of common carrier and put it into this other ambiguous part of the law."

A couple of years later, they did the same for telecommunication service, not just the cable but the AT&T and the Verizon fiber and all that "that’s not telecommunications, that’s the information service," so suddenly you have this most important infrastructure of the 21st century, I think, which is broadband, so central to the progress of the country and to the welfare of all of us as individuals, taken out of any meaningful public oversight, doesn’t even come with the simple protections of a company plain old telephone service.

I mean, you know, people fought for those protections for years and got them: common carriers, reasonable prices, comparable services between rural and urban areas, protections for public safety, privacy protections, and all that. Why would we make a transition to broadband telecommunications and say, "Oh, this doesn’t come with any of those consumer protections?" I mean you talk about a giant leap backwards, I can’t think of one bigger leap than that.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Maybe, in the 30 seconds we have left, tell our listeners what’s the most effective thing they can do to make their voice heard on this issue of net neutrality.

MICHAEL COPPS: I think they need to speak out. They can get in touch with the FCC directly, elected officials, visit our website as I said, but just talk it up to your family and your friends and your neighbors and be a part of this grassroots effort because there’s so much money and such an army of lobbyists in the other side, and even though I think we all understand the … not all, but most of the people listening to this show understand the importance of what we’re talking about tonight. It’s not going to happen unless we have a real grassroots push, and the time for that is now. If we let them pass rules that are inadequate, we’re going to be stuck with them for a long, long time and that’s a denial of the Internet and a denial of American democracy, both.

Find information on groups waging the current campaign to preserve Internet freedom by referring to the list of links below.

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