Federal regulators have unveiled new rules that would effectively abandon net neutrality, the concept of a free and open Internet. The proposal from the Federal Communications Commission would allow Internet providers like Verizon or Comcast to charge media companies like Netflix or Amazon extra fees in order to receive preferential treatment, such as faster speeds for their content. If the new rules are voted on next month, the FCC will begin accepting public comments and issue final regulations by the end of summer. “What we’re really seeing here is the transformation of the Internet where the 1 percent get the fast lanes, and the 99 percent get the slow lanes,” says Michael Copps, retired FCC Commissioner. “If we let that happen, we have really undercut the potential of this transformative technology. This has to be stopped.” We ae also joined by Astra Taylor, author of the new book, “The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age."
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Federal regulators have unveiled new rules that would effectively abandon net neutrality, the concept of a free and open Internet. The proposal from the Federal Communications Commission would allow Internet providers like Verizon or Comcast to charge media companies like Netflix or Amazon extra fees in order to receive preferential treatment, such as faster speeds for their content. Under the FCC’s proposal, broadband providers would have to disclose the terms they offer for the more rapid lanes and would be required to act in what it called a, quote, "commercially reasonable manner."
AMY GOODMAN: Media reform groups like Free Press denounced the new rules, saying, quote, "Giving the green light to pay-for-priority schemes will be a disaster for startups, nonprofits and everyday Internet users who cannot afford these unnecessary tolls. These users will all be pushed onto the Internet dirt road, while deep pocketed Internet companies enjoy the benefits of the newly created fast lanes," Free Press said. In fact, this statement echoes what then-Senator Barack Obama said about net neutrality in 2007, when it was a key part of his campaign platform in the 2008 presidential election.
SEN. BARACK OBAMA: I will take a backseat to no one in my commitment to network neutrality, because once providers start to privilege some applications or websites over others, then the smaller voices get squeezed out, and we all lose. The Internet is perhaps the most open network in history, and we have to keep it that way.
AMY GOODMAN: That was November 2007.
Well, if the FCC approves the draft rules on net neutrality next month, it will then accept public comments and issue final regulations by the end of the summer.
For more, we’re joined in Washington, D.C., by the longest-serving member of the Federal Communications Commission, Michael Copps. He retired in 2012. He’s now advising the Media and Democracy Reform program. And here in New York, Astra Taylor is with us, author of the new book The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age.
We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Juan, you also wrote your column in the New York Daily News, headlined "FCC Flip-Flop Could Turn the Internet into the Superhighway of the Rich."
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yes, and actually, I called it maybe the Bo Jackson Turnpike, because when President Obama nominated the current FCC chairman, Tom Wheeler, to take over the FCC, he referred to him as the "Bo Jackson of telecom," by referring to—Bo Jackson was an athlete who was an all-star in both football and baseball and was an all-star in both of those sports. And Wheeler is the only person ever inducted into both the cable industry hall of fame and the telecom hall of fame, because he was a lobbyist for both of those industries before he became the FCC chairman. And so it’s under Wheeler now, apparently, that the FCC is moving in this direction to create this superhighway for those who can pay on the Internet.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Michael Copps, you’re the longest-serving member in the FCC. You retired in 2012. Why do you see this ruling as a threat to equality on the Internet?
MICHAEL COPPS: Well, this is all about making sure that the Internet, which is the most transformative communications technology in all of history, really serves the people and consumers, and we are playing very fast and very loose with it right now and turning it into the playground of the few and turning it over to big companies, consolidated companies, that are able to exact tolls for content producers and their friends and the people who can afford to pay for those fast lanes. So, you know, they may say NBC News, with all of glitzy infotainment, or the other networks, the newsless news over here, they get the fast lanes; Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now!, well, they can get the slow lanes over there. What you’re really seeing here is kind of a transformation of the Internet where 1 percent get the fast lanes and the 99 percent get the slow lanes. That’s not what the potential and the promise of the Internet was. This was to be our town square of democracy. This was to be our opportunity-creating technology to open doors to a more profitable future. And to shackle it now and to not have clear rules of the road going ahead to make sure that we all have access and that we’re not being ripped off and that these companies aren’t just managing scarcity for their own benefit, if we let that happen, we have really undercut the potential of this transformative technology. This has to be stopped.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Commissioner Copps, it’s amazing that this is occurring under President Obama, who himself admits that the Internet played a great role in his being able to cobble together the coalition that brought him to power in the White House, and who insisted that he would defend net neutrality.
MICHAEL COPPS: Yeah.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Here’s Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler responding to concerns about the proposed rules and saying that "There is no 'turnaround in policy.' The same rules will apply to all Internet content. As with the original Open Internet rules, and consistent with the court’s decision, behavior that harms consumers or competition will not be permitted." That’s what Wheeler said. And he later wrote on a blog post titled "Setting the Record Straight" about the proposed changes, "That," quote, "all ISPs must transparently disclose to their subscribers and users all relevant information as to the policies that govern their network;" and "That no legal content may be blocked; and That ISPs may not act in a commercially unreasonable manner to harm the Internet, including favoring the traffic from an affiliated entity." That’s what Wheeler says. What’s your perspective on this?
MICHAEL COPPS: They’re going about this in entirely the wrong way, and the courts have even told them that. The FCC a couple of years ago passed some rather pallid network neutrality rules. I didn’t think they really got the job done, but the big companies took them to court anyhow. Right now—and the court threw them out, so we have no rules right this minute. Anybody can block content, slow down, speed up, favor who they want to favor and all the rest. The only way to get around that is to impose that part of the law that recognizes broadband as a telecommunications service. The court literally told the FCC, if you want to do this open Internet and Internet freedom, you should have classified broadband this way in the first place. But back in the early part of the century, under Chairman Powell and Chairman Martin, the commission got this silly idea, the majority, that they would call broadband something else, put it in another part of the law where there was no authority, and that’s where Chairman Genachowski resided, the rules that got thrown out, and that’s where Tom Wheeler right now is putting—pinning his hopes for network neutrality. And it’s not going to work, because the authority is not there.
AMY GOODMAN: Financial analyst Michael Pachter of Wedbush Securities told CNBC why Internet service providers want to charge extra fees from content distributors like Netflix.
MICHAEL PACHTER: I’m certain that every Internet service provider ultimately is going to charge, because they can. I think that the ISPs view their proprietary networks the way that, you know, crude pipelines view their transportation as a valuable asset. It’s capital-intensive, and I think that they believe that they should be able to charge people to put stuff through their pipelines.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Michael Pachte of Wedbush Securities. Astra Taylor, author of The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age, respond.
ASTRA TAYLOR: Well, I think, first off, every time we refer to Wheeler, we should call him "former cable lobbyist Tom Wheeler" instead of dignifying him just by calling him the commissioner. Yeah, there is a sense that this is inevitable. I mean, I’ve seen in The Wall Street Journal, it’s "people are willing to pay; that’s the model we’re going to have." But we need to understand, you know, what’s driving this. This is not something that’s happening because consumers are demanding a faster lane on the Internet, because if you have a faster lane, you’re slowing down everything else. Cable companies, they make 95 percent profits on broadband already. They’re lobbying for these changes. Comcast’s lobbying budget went up from half a million to $20 million in 2011, so in the span of 10 years. And this is not something that is inevitable or necessarily going to benefit anyone except the incumbent players. So I think we’re—I think that we also need to think about how we describe this. "Net neutrality" is kind of such a dull term. I’ve seen many of my friends commenting online: "I’m trying to care about this issue." You know—
AMY GOODMAN: Right. What exactly does it mean, "network neutrality"?
ASTRA TAYLOR: It basically means that all data, all bits, should be treated equally. So, we had common carriage obligations for the telephone lines, where telephone land lines could not discriminate. They couldn’t deny anyone service. They had to serve all. But when broadband was reclassified, like Michael Copps just described, in 2005, ISPs went from being a telecommunications service to an information provider, and then they were—they don’t have the same common carriage obligations. So we need to reclassify and go back and acknowledge that in fact these are telecommunications services. So—but I feel like there’s something in the way we’re framing this, that we need to find a new term to talk about what it is they’re trying to do to the net. And some people have said a "payola Internet," "broadband discrimination," but something to get people to see what this change means and to care about it a bit more.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Commissioner Copps, as Astra was saying, that there are some people saying this is a done deal already. But you recall those phrases being used more than 10 years ago, when there was an attempt to consolidate media ownership.
MICHAEL COPPS: Yeah.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And everyone was saying that was a done deal, too.
MICHAEL COPPS: Right.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But then you went out into the heartland of America and began holding hearings that changed, really, the nature of the discussion. Do you think it’s time for something like that again?
MICHAEL COPPS: It is imperative. This is a real inflection point for the future of the Internet. The decisions that are going to be made by the FCC this year with regard to Internet freedom and with regard to further consolidation, like this ridiculous Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger, are going to determine, almost, the future of the Internet for a generation. So, the future is now for the Internet.
And you are absolutely correct: The only way we’re going to put a stop to going down this road is citizen action. That happened in 2003 when Chairman Powell was trying to change the media ownership caps at the commission so that fewer and fewer behemoths could own more and more, gobble up more and more independent stations around the country. And there was a grassroots movement at that time, led by Free Press and Common Cause and others, concerned senators and congressmen. And I went out, and Commissioner Adelstein went out around the country. Three million people, thereupon, wrote to the Federal Communications Commission and Congress saying, "We don’t like these rules." Meantime, Powell had pushed them through with this majority at the commission. But you know what happened then, after those three million people spoke, was that the Senate voted twice, the U.S. Senate, to overturn those rules; the House expressed its displeasure; and then the courts sent those back to the commission saying they were inadequate. That’s what we need to do again right now.
And when I used to talk about media consolidation on—in radio and television, I think a lot of folks thought, well, the Internet is somehow exempt from that: It’s so dynamic that it’s exempt from what happened to radio and television and cable with all of the consolidation and gatekeeper control. Now people are beginning to realize: Wait a minute, this is happening to this wonderful new transformative technology, too. We can’t afford to let it go down that same road. What a horrible denial of the opportunity-creating potential the Internet it would be to cable-ize it. And, of course, who better to cable-ize the Internet than the biggest cable company in the United States of America, Comcast, as they seek to take over Time Warner Cable and already took over NBCU News.
But yes, you’re exactly right. This change, protecting the Internet, isn’t going to come from the top down. It was bittersweet to hear that quote. That was not the sound of an uncertain trumpet from the president. But fast-forward now five years, and we’re getting this sellout of the Internet and the Internet for the 1 percent. We cannot let that happen.
AMY GOODMAN: Earlier this month, the European Parliament voted to protect the neutrality of Internet service providers toward websites. Telecom companies will be barred from blocking or slowing down selected services. The measure drew opposition from the European Telecommunications Network Operators’ Association. Its chairman, Luigi Gambardella, argued the move would restrict the number of services available to European customers.
LUIGI GAMBARDELLA: We don’t see why we should limit the European Internet and restrict the European consumer to have access to new services. And also, we see that this is very dangerous to start to regulate the Internet, and maybe we will have a regulation of Internet in Europe which will be completely different of the regulation of Internet in the rest of the world.
AMY GOODMAN: Astra Taylor?
ASTRA TAYLOR: Well, I mean, there’s doublespeak in there, but he’s right: There might be a completely different regulation of—not necessarily regulation of the Internet, but regulation of access to the Internet in the U.S. compared to Europe, because we might choose this payola model, while the European Union has enshrined net neutrality. We’ve seen Brazil take a big step forward with its Internet Constitution enshrining net neutrality. So we are at this crossroads, where we might be going down one path while the rest of the world has stronger privacy protections, has net neutrality and is able to build on this technology and actualize its potential.
So I think if we’re to kind of change course, we have to recognize some of the factors. Sometimes people compare the fight for net neutrality to SOPA. But I think the power alliances are shifting—
AMY GOODMAN: That was the so-called Stop Online Privacy [sic] Act, that was defeated.
ASTRA TAYLOR: Yes, exactly. And a lot of the big technology firms came on board for that. And I think we’re seeing—
AMY GOODMAN: Piracy.
ASTRA TAYLOR: Yeah, against SOPA. And we’re seeing them be a little silent on this issue, because some of them have gotten so big in the last few years that they might benefit. They might see a competitive advantage in being able to use a fast lane and see it as a way of squelching competition. So it really is up to civil society right now to comment as much as they can around May 15th, around the time that these proposed rules are announced, and to flood our officials with—you know, make it loud and clear that we’re not the ones asking for this.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, when you’re saying about some of the big companies, one of them, Netflix, immediately after the court decision in January that struck down the latest attempt by the FCC to establish open Internet rules, immediately cut a deal with Comcast to begin paying them extra to make sure that their video wasn’t being degraded.
ASTRA TAYLOR: Yeah, exactly. And that shows you the power that these ISPs are amassing and why we should be so worried. If they can beat up Netflix, then they can beat up the rest of us, right?
AMY GOODMAN: Michael Copps, you compare what’s going on now with Comcast’s attempt to merge with Time Warner. Talk about specifically that, because that’s happening at the same time.
MICHAEL COPPS: Well, this is amazing, and it all started with the big Comcast-NBCU merger a few years ago. And when they came into the commission, and I was there, and told me the dimensions and the extent of that merger, I was just about—breath taken away, because this was not just a cable company merging with another cable company; this was about broadband as well as broadcast, because they’re a huge provider of broadband. It was about old traditional media, and it was about new media, content and distribution. And it was just giving so much power to one specific company. And now they’re taking that footprint that they got by paying all those billions of dollars to buy NBCU, and they’re buying up Time Warner Cable and going to extend that footprint over an even wider swath of the United States of America. And the way I see the business plan, it’s kind of to ration scarcity, to make a profit from the scarcity, data caps, having people pay for faster lanes and slower lanes.
You know, what I really want people to realize is that this isn’t just about speeds and gadgetry and gimmicks. This goes to the heart of small-d democracy. If we’re going to give a company such tremendous power over distribution and content to slow down news, or maybe saying, "We don’t like that advocacy cause or that good government cause over here, so we’re going to—we’re going to block that," then we have taken this tool that could give us a wonderful new town square of democracy paved with broadband bricks and turn it into the same old same old that we have right now. And given the problems this country has right now, we can’t afford to go down that road. We need an informed public. We need open news. We need journalism, that these companies are also limiting.
It’s a sad—it’s a sad story right now. But we do have an opportunity here. With these new rules, people can see that they’re not going to get the job done. We can’t have rules that say, "Well, we’ll look on this at a case-by-case basis over some ambiguous term, 'commercially reasonable.'" We need to say "no blocking, no discriminating, no speeding up, no slowing down," and put it in that part of the law that allows the commission to do it, get it over and done with. Everybody will know what the rules are, and then we can go forward.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, the rules will be actually laid out—we don’t even know exactly what they are—in May and then voted on. Michael Copps, we want to thank you for joining us, former FCC commissioner, retired in 2012. Astra Taylor, we’d like you to stay with us after break so we can talk further about your book, The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age. And then, it’s the 50th anniversary of the World’s Fair that took place here in New York. As President Johnson came here to inaugurate it, why were 700 people protesting outside? We’ll speak to two of its leaders. Stay with us.