How Much Danger Is Net Neutrality in Now?
Basically all the progress—or much of the progress, anyway—the Obama administration has made over the past 8 years is now in danger—and so is the internet as we know it.
It doesn’t get talked about on corporate mainstream media because the cable companies are violently opposed to it, but one of the single most important things the Obama administration did was its decision, vis the FCC last February, to classify the internet as a public utility.
That decision was important because it preserved the principle of net neutrality, which bans internet service providers like Comcast from discriminating against web traffic they don't like or don't own. Without net neutrality, Comcast or Verizon could force you to pay extra to stream videos hosted on a website owned by a rival company. They could also slow down content from rival-owned websites to make those rival-owned websites unusable.
It's not hyperbole to say that net neutrality is the one thing standing between us and the nightmare scenario: a completely corporate-controlled internet.
The election of Donald Trump has now made that nightmare scenario a very real possibility.
Joining me now to explain why is Christopher J. Lewis, Vice President of Public Knowledge. Chris Lewis—welcome.
Christopher Lewis: Thom, thanks for having me.
Thom Hartmann: It's great to have you with us here. So, first of all, what kind of danger is net neutrality facing and, did I accurately characterize net neutrality in that set up?
Christopher Lewis: No, I think you described it very well. It's a term of art that we see in telecom policy circles but it really is the idea that people should get to go to any part of the internet they want to if they're paying for internet service.
Thom Hartmann: Right, with the same speed and ease and facility and also that anybody should be able to put content on the internet. If I have a blog or website and I don't want to pay, you know, 15 different ISPs in order to deliver it rapidly. I should be able to make that available to the world.
Christopher Lewis: Right, that the rules of the road are the same for everybody and that the ISPs—the internet service providers—should not act as gatekeepers for content, that the people should decide what they want to see and where they want to go.
Thom Hartmann: Right.
Christopher Lewis: Yeah.
Thom Hartmann: For common carrier status, the metaphor that I often uses the phone company because, I mean, this is where it came from.
Christopher Lewis: Itwas built from the phone company.
Thom Hartmann: Right, this was been developed back in the 20s, 30s and 40s, you know, really fine-tuned and the whole idea is, you know, let's say AT&T is my phone company and they charge me let's say a penny a minute, you know, back in the day for a phone call. They don't listen in and say, is he doing a business deal? We'll charge him five cents a minute. OH, he's talking to grandma, we'll charge him two cents a minute. It wasn't based on the content of the call or necessarily even who I was calling unless it had to do with distance. The corollary today would be volume of data, perhaps, or speed. Is that a reasonable metaphor or analogy? And if so, why would the incoming Trump administration want to blow that up?
Christopher Lewis: Well, it's a great metaphor because the internet was built on phone lines, on the phone networks, and then grew up over time from those networks and the principles that were, that went into the creation of the rules around the phone network—that you could call anyone that you want to, that, and your network in New York would connect to every small town in the United States. Those are the basic fundamental principles everyone's come to expect for communications generally. It's now that we have a 21st century communications network in the internet, consumers expect to see the same sort of values preserved in net neutrality and maintaining an open internet is just one of those major ones. It's probably the central one that has to be preserved. We now have strong open Internet rules that we got in 2015 and unfortunately we're seeing the incoming president elect suggest that he might want to overturn those. And so the long-standing bipartisan support for an open Internet could be at risk depending on what the president and his FCC appointees want to do.
Thom Hartmann: Now Donald Trump, I think it was a couple years back, tweeted something like net neutrality is a hoax or it was sort of in the same vein as, you know, global warming was made up by the Chinese in order to make their products more more saleable or something. I'm not sure that he really understood the principle. Do you think that there is a principle at work here in his mind or is he just kind of going to go along and get along? I mean, isn't it really more like the Republican Party is kind of more corporate friendly, and the Democrats are more consumer-friendly, and that's really this divide?
Christopher Lewis: It does seem like that's the question. With the president-elect we don't always know if he hasn't given details on what he thinks policy should look like. Like I said, there's been long-standing bipartisan support for maintaining an open Internet. The real debate has been on how you do it, what rules are used to get there. And so, you know, if this is going to be brought up by a Republican Congress, which is probably the easiest, the strongest way for Republicans to look at repealing the rules that we have now, they're going to have to come up with how you maintain an open Internet if you repeal the rules we already have. You know, if you're going to repeal it we're going to replace it with?
Thom Hartmann: Right.
Christopher Lewis: People expect to have this protection, people expect to be able to go anywhere online. And no one wants to see the fundamental values of the internet change. So these are questions they are going to have to answer.
Thom Hartmann: Yeah. Typically when we see legislation coming out and that's kind of outside the realm of the FCC's rule-making, but typically when we see legislation particularly coming out of the GOP, you hear about it in advance from the think tanks that are funded by the interests who are actually writing the legislation itself and handing it off to the lawmakers in more cases than not.
Christopher Lewis: Right.
Thom Hartmann: And so you can kind of tell what's coming just by, you know, paying attention the Heritage Foundation and other groups. Are there conservative think tanks out there that are saying, hey, it's time to do away with net neutrality? If so, what's the rationale?
Christopher Lewis: Oh, definitely there are, and we see some of these folks from these think tanks being hired by the Trump transition team. So this is why we believe this is a serious threat. But what we hear from those organizations is that net neutrality is not needed, that you can preserve competition through antitrust, and we just don't think that's true, that there is a reason why there's a Communications Act, which has a much stronger standard than antitrust. It relies on a public interest standard that proactively sets rules that guide telecom and internet companies because they're so large, because they connect us to everything that's important in our lives whether it's healthcare or education. And because so few consumers have a choice in what internet service provider they have. Most consumers have a choice of one or two providers.
Thom Hartmann: Right. So, it seems like there's two ways that the Republicans could go about blowing this thing up that Tom Wheeler and the FCC did, and actually the two Republican appointees in the FCC were opposed to net neutrality; it was a 3-2 vote as I recall.
Christopher Lewis: That's right.
Thom Hartmann: And one of the ways is through the FCC itself, and we already have one opening and Tom Wheeler just announced that he's retiring, so that's going to make two. So that means that, you know, the GOP gets two seats on the FCC. They may not even need Congress, right?
Christopher Lewis: So, the rules are that there can only be three of the five seats can be of the party of the president so of the two openings, one will have to be a non-Republican seat. And tradition holds—if the president-elect holds to tradition—tradition would hold that he usually looks to the leadership from the Democratic Party in the Congress.
Thom Hartmann: He has largely ignored tradition on pretty much everything.
Christopher Lewis: Well, let's hope he holds it on this one, because we need someone in that minority seat who will make the strong arguments about why net neutrality rules are important, why they need to be preserved
Thom Hartmann: As opposed to just basically putting some idiot in there, you know, not to denigrate people but...
Christopher Lewis: We won't even know who it is, so I...
Thom Hartmann: I was kind of thinking of Rick Perry in the Department of Energy but that's a whole... So, it could be done by the FCC or it could be done legislatively by basically what? Rewriting the Telecommunications Act?
Christopher Lewis: Yes, and that's been discussed by several members of Congress including the leadership on the Commerce Committee in the Senate and the Energy and Commerce Committee in the House. So...
Thom Hartmann: The Telecommunications Act of 1995, correct me if I'm wrong...
Christopher Lewis: '96.
Thom Hartmann: ...96, thank you, changed ownership rules, did it not?
Christopher Lewis: Yes.
Thom Hartmann: For radio and television stations, substantially.
Christopher Lewis: It did and it created a system of competition where they hoped that the big cable companies and the big telecom companies would compete with each other. and we just haven't seen that materialize over time.
Thom Hartmann: I was going to say, that doesn't seem to have worked. Instead what we've seen is massive media consolidation since the Telecommunications Act of '96. So arguably it needs to be rewritten, but if Republicans rewrite it's probably not going to go in the direction of increasing competition.
Christopher Lewis: One certainly worries about it, you know, the Telecom Act of 1996 took multiple years to write and was done on a bipartisan basis. Any effort to rewrite the Telecom Act for the 21st century really needs to be done in the same way so that it becomes a long-standing law that everyone can buy into and preserves the basic values of communication networks that we've come to expect.
Thom Hartmann: What do you expect to happen with regard to net neutrality over the near future, and how can people who are concerned about the future of an open Internet participate in some way in helping to influence that process?
Christopher Lewis: Yeah, we definitely need the millions of folks who spoke up in favor of the rules that we have now that we got in 2015 to speak up and speak with a loud voice to their members of Congress. You know, the FCC can act to overturn the rules once the new administration comes in and that takes a process of, you know, anywhere from six to nine months to run through the procedural rules of having notice and comment on new rules at the FCC. But a permanent fix would be legislation and we here with the idea of rewriting the Telecom Act or just doing a bill on net neutrality, that that might be a way that Republicans in Congress want to go.
And so it's important that we have an open debate and that citizens contact their members of Congress about what they want to see preserved as far as, you know, the values of the internet go. And it's not just net neutrality. It goes to access, and affordable access for all consumers, it goes to basic privacy and truth in billing online. These are things that people have come to expect, that if we lose broadband as a Title II service, those things could be in jeopardy.
Thom Hartmann: So basically, if you call your member of Congress it should be: preserve net neutrality, preserve the open Internet
Christopher Lewis: And preserve Title II.
Thom Hartmann: And preserve Title II. Title II is the magic phrase. Chris Lewis, thank you so much.
Christopher Lewis: Thank you, Thom.
Thom Hartmann: Pleasure to have you.