FCC Fork Tongues on Net Neutrality

Little Rock   It wasn’t so long ago that we don’t remember, but in a fierce fight that logged more citizen comments that ever before recorded on a Federal Communications Commission matter, the FCC essentially declared the internet equivalent to a public utility assuring net neutrality, meaning that all providers have equal access to users. Everyone from consumers and citizens to Silicon Valley were happy to have won this one. The telecommunications monopolies sued and are still in court, but in a disappointment to them and the politicians they fund with their huge contributions, they have most recently lost their efforts to overturn the Obama FCC order, and are appealing to the Supreme Court.

In the wave of the Trump Administration rollbacks of Obama era regulations and initiatives, the new FCC Chairman, Ajit Pai, has immediately sought to unravel the internet’s classification as a utility, assure net neutrality, and pretty much have the FCC play any role in regulating any of this. Chairman Pai is a slick one. He claims he is totally committed to what he calls an “open” internet. He swears he is a big “streamer” himself and that he’s a bannerman for “Game of Thrones” as a binge watcher.

Listening to an interview with him on the radio was a very scary thing, because not only is he a fast and smooth talker, but he’s duplicitous and evasive on the issues. He had two key talking points in trying to muddy the waters.

First, he harps on the fact that the regulation defining public utilities goes back to 1934 and President Franklin D. Roosevelt. He made that points several times in different ways in order to try and embed the notion that this is antiquated and out of date and the internet is modern, so how could one possibly be adequate for the other. He slightly slips up by mentioning that the 1934 regulations were dealing with monopolistic tendencies of AT&T, forgetting for a minute that it might be worth still looking at what’s up with AT&T and its buddies now, since it’s a longway from small potatoes.

Secondly, he tried a curve ball, trying to argue that he was trying to take the FCC back to what he called the Clinton era regulatory philosophy which prevailed from what he claimed was 1990 to 2015, meaning until the Obama FCC majority put the internet under protective custody, so to speak. No question, President Clinton was a deregulator supreme, but what Pai was trying to plant here in unsuspecting minds was the idea that he is mainstream and that Obama and his FCC majority were outliers.

The game was up when the interviewer pressed him for how he thought under his proposal that telecoms speeding up their own content and slowing up their competitors would be handled. This was a forked-tongue masterpiece. He answered quickly saying that if they did that and it hurt consumers then the Federal Trade Commission could investigate and so could the Justice Department, along with state agencies around the country. Huh? Yes, he was careful to push any and all responsibility for telecom miscreants to everyone and anyone other than the FCC. Under his watch, they are clearly planning to wash their hands of any supervision or regulation. Essentially, he was saying, hey, if you have a problem, catch them if you can, and good luck with that.

In these days this passive, reactive approach to anything involving the internet and consumers just doesn’t work, and he knows it though he doesn’t want to upset his patrons and paymaster. Case in point, we have Uber creating software in order to deliberately trick states and cities where it was committed to avoiding and breaking regulations barring or limiting its participation. Another case in point, we also have is the huge scandal where Volkswagen created software to trick regulators on how many miles per gallon its diesel engines were getting.

The internet and software both giveth and taketh away. It’s not easy finding the tricksters, because this is wildly sophisticated lawbreaking. The FCC wants to go back to 1934 and snooze their way through the Trump-era, but citizens and consumers depend on the internet, and the FCC needs to do their jobs of protecting us and it, and not just spin their way around their duty.

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Why is it so Hard for Policy Makers to Separate Access from Affordability?

981207_10156731174555570_8112977795619686083_oNew Orleans    Life, work, and the world are full of mysteries, but after years of hitting my head against various walls, I’m finally connecting the dots in trying to understand the peculiar responses we sometimes get in trying to change public policies and private pricing strategies.

Remittances are a prime example. Talking last week to a professor who teaches a course at a local university on personal finances, she was excited when I told her about ACORN’s Remittance Justice Campaign, because she wanted her students to understand the complicated world of money transfer systems. When she understood the topline demand of our campaign was to cap the pricing at 5% to stop remittance costs from being so predatory, her face almost deflated. Of course she supported our position, don’t get me wrong, but affordability had not occurred to her as an issue in the way that it is of course paramount to immigrant families and migrant workers trying to send money home to relatives and communities in their home countries.

ACORN Canada members are testifying this week before the CRTC (Canadian Radio & Television Commission) about the high price of internet in Canada. Quoting from an early copy of their prepared testimony:

…the organization released a report summarizing 400 testimonials from low-income Canadians about how vital yet unaffordable home internet is.

A recent CRTC survey suggests that many Canadians think home internet is essential, but too pricey. Half of the survey’s 29,000 respondents are dissatisfied with the price of their internet service. ACORN Canada members view affordable access to the internet as essential to improving low-income Canadians’ ability to succeed in the digital economy.

“How can low-income families get out of poverty if they can’t apply for jobs, or access government services? Our kids can’t even do their homework,” says ACORN Canada President Marva Burnett. “Access to the internet is a right, and going to the library or coffee shops are not practical solutions.”

The same dilemma was faced by the FCC in the United States and, as we recently discussed, and the FCC duck walked around the issue by subsidizing the cost of internet ostensibly for lower income families by around $10 per month, rather than tackling head on the fact that affordability is the barrier to access, rather than availability of the internet.

This is an old saw. In the housing collapse from 2007, the supposed “reform” was trying to force lenders, many of whom were overtly predatory in the subprime mortgage field, to have to assure the loan was affordable to the family before issuing the money. When they were just churning loans, there was more than enough access to mortgage lending capital, but whether it was affordable within an honest reckoning of family income was a diminished factor in pumping air into the bubble.

Why do policy makers refuse to routinely address the issue of affordability when dealing with the question of access of services and implementation of programs? This is where the divide of experience between the one-percenters and big whoops from the rest of us and especially from low-and-middle income families becomes so pronounced and creates such tragic results. They just don’t get it, and too often these days, seem unwilling to do the “homework” and listening to understand the issues from any other point of view, especially from the perspective of our people.

Simple suggestion: consider affordability first, and access later down the list. Make stuff work by understanding that pricing pushes people as a primary concern.

Duh!

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