Establishing Internet as a Utility – This is Big!

internet-logos-1024x643Quito   In the midst of so much tragedy at the massacre of almost 50 LGBT men and women at a nightclub in Orlando and the horror and insensitivity of the Trump and Republican response, it was still possible to find a bright spot in the news: a federal court has backed policies establishing the internet as a utility.

It was not just any court either, it was the highly influential United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, one of the most prestigious in the country. By a 2-1 vote on the panel, the judges in an 184-page decision came down solidly with the people rather than the industry by holding that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) rightly can regulate the internet and assure net neutrality, because in fact the internet is not a luxury good, subject to special pricing and plundering by cable companies, but a utility, necessary for all the people.

This doesn’t close the door. There will likely be an appeal of course to the Supreme Court, but it opens many doors that might include more expansive rulings by the FCC that the internet is not only a utility, as a vital communication and consumer tool, but a public good that should be regulated accordingly and done so aggressively.

At one level this is something we all knew. Applying for jobs, getting through school, applying for many public benefits for the poor, keeping up with friends, and even the news of the nation, is increasingly impossible without the internet. The federal government’s investment in recent years to extend access to the internet to more rural areas and to public schools and libraries was evidence of this, even while being a subsidy for private carriers.

Interestingly, there are signs that the recognition of the public utility nature of the internet may be trickling down. On the one hand the FCC is talking about loosening the restraints that private internet providers have managed to lobby through many state legislatures to block municipalities from establishing their own systems to insure that all their citizens have affordable, high speed access. On the other, I got a press release the other day that the Ouachita rural electric cooperative in southern Arkansas of all places had partnered with an outfit so that it could extend internet services to 9000 families lacking access in the footprint of the cooperative. That would be a nice idea to catch on fire with other cooperatives that are sitting on money and unclear what to do with it other than pay their directors.

So, sure, we all hate utility companies and there have been thousands of campaigns to try and get them to be more accountable, provide better service, and affordable or lifeline rates, but if there’s one thing we’ve learned to hate even more than the local telephone, gas, or electric company, it’s the profiteering cable companies. With this decision we can hope their time in the sun and at the trough is finally coming to an end, so that all the people can access and afford the internet, because it’s a utility operating as a public good and necessity as well.


Surprise! Comcast Doesn’t Own Obama

20110101_ldd001New Orleans    Well, another country heard from! President Obama seems to be shaking off the midterms by stepping up his game. He came out forcefully for “net neutrality.” That’s not really news, he’s always said that he was for net neutrality, but this time he finally came out foursquare for the internet being classified as a public utility. Furthermore, he was against the fast and slow lanes for the internet that has been proposed by big cable and internet companies to further monopolize their cash machine, while denying net neutrality. 

Of course all of this was the President joining the rest of us in heaving a rock at the windows of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Admittedly, four million people have now weighed in on this question of the FCC holding hearings and determining the future status of the internet, the vast majority arguing decidedly for net neutrality and for full utility classification like electricity, telephones, and the like, but still his rock has a lot of weight. Unfortunately, the FCC is more beholding to Congress than the President once they are appointed for both their budget and legal implementation, and more than just me are still scratching our heads at why he named a corporate communications lobbyist and trade association executive as chair of the FCC, so it’s not like they are jumping to attention at his call.

But, let’s celebrate the good news where we find it, even as we acknowledge that the struggle is still fierce. The stock market understood the message well enough and pulled down the stocks and value of Comcast and the like by 4% in the wake of the President’s remarks, because they get the fact that big, bad, bully Comcast is not going to be happy with even a compromise on this issue since they want it all, all of the time. Comcast likely overstepped again and over-estimated the buddy-buddy relationship they were claiming for their executive vice-president David Cohen with the President and thinking that his living room fundraisers with Obama allowed them to stake a quiet claim to his silence on this issue, which he has maintained over recent years. The President’s remarks made it clear they may have made some down payments, but they don’t own his farm.

No matter how many times Comcast and others want to claim that they need a monopoly machine to keep the tech wave rolling, their loud roar can’t seem to drown out the voices of Netflix and others saying, “nay!” Reports of a meeting between Vimeo, Kickstarter, and other internet upstart darlings begging the White House and Obama advisers to ride hard with the rest of us against the bullies and earlier meetings with Facebook, Google, and others, make it impossible for Comcast and the like to claim that they speak for Silicon Valley and innovation.

These days we have to be honest with ourselves. We’re never going to win this hands’ down. Whatever emerges will be a sloppy compromise with dreams dragging and lawyers rushing into court, but at least the Comcast con has been called, and more and more of our allies are stepping into the fight so we’re not going to get bulldozed.

Now if we could just get the same support in bridging the digital divide….