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 He made that points several times in different ways in order to try and embed the notion that this is antiquated and out of date and the internet is modern, so how could one possibly be adequate for the other.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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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….

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President Defaults on Net Neutrality, Companies Bully the Public

7362006206_ea7fa6b6f8_zNew Orleans   The battleground is clear, so let’s hope that the contending forces are ready for a slugfest rather than a fake pillow fight.  The FCC in a 3-2 vote put the chairman’s two-tracked proposal for a faster “pay for streaming” lane up for formal discussion and comment before a final vote in several months. 

            Sadly, President Obama ran for the hills before the battle is more deeply engaged, saying that he is 100% for net neutrality, but is going to leave it to the FCC to figure out how to achieve it.  To my lights this is a little like saying him saying that he wants to end poverty, but doesn’t really want to do anything about it.  Once again it’s important to remember that hope is not a plan.

            Supposedly all the big tech companies and most of Silicon Valley are with us on this one, but I have to wonder how deep their commitment is and how much they are really willing to bring to the fight.  As much as they profess to believe in innovation in the future, most of them are pushing and shoving to become the “legacy” companies of the high tech industry and for business, no matter what they say, very few ever welcome competition.  If any of you have any doubt, just read Walter Issacson’s fanboy biography, Steve Jobs, or look at the settlements on price fixing on e-books and then tell me that’s it’s going to be all right.  I think we will certainly see some fancy footwork on the canvass and shadow boxing, but real upper cuts and body blows,  I’m not sure about any of that.

            Meanwhile the companies are already moving to the next fight, reclassification as a public utility, rather than wasting time on the slow lane/passing lane division of the internet and the arguments about net neutrality.  Verizon, Comcast, AT&T and the rest are more than happy to let the FCC take one for their team on net neutrality, while they train their big guns at any real regulation which would come if they were finally properly classified as utilities, which few doubt is already the reality.  On this the companies are all in agreement.   According to the Wall Street Journal speaking of Verizon, “…the telecom giant didn’t address that issue but it did say it would fight any proposal to regulate the Internet like a utility.  Comcast and other major broadband providers, including AT&T, echoed those concerns.”    Their industry association which is of course led by a previous chair of – yes, you guessed it – the FCC, Michael Powell, General Colin Powell’s son, issued a half-dozen bullying threats if the FCC even imagined having the backbone to finally regulate the internet as a utility, you know, like telephones and electricity. 

            Here was a chance for the President and the White House to finally lead, not desert the field, but it looks like we going to have to fight the war to keep the internet accessible and affordable with the ragtag army we have, rather than the champions that we need.

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Opposition Building to FCC on Net Neutrality and Comcast Monopoly

12217_large_neutral-bitsNew Orleans    Finally, the 1% of 1% out in Silicon Valley is coming out of its stupor and scarey-cat stance in dealing with the Federal Communications Commission to stand with the rest of us in the 99% to oppose former industry lobbyist and new chair Tom Wheeler’s efforts to gut net neutrality on the internet and maybe even stand up to Comcast monopoly proposals.  Amazon, Facebook, Google, Twitter, Yahoo, and a mess of other high-techers came together in a coalition to write the chairman stating in no uncertain terms that the proposals he is advancing will end net neutrality no matter how smoothly he spins it.

According to New York Times media columnist, David Carr,

The signatories did not mince words, calling the proposal “a grave threat to the Internet.”  The letter goes on: “The commission’s longstanding commitment and actions undertaken to protect the open Internet are a central reason why the Internet remains an engine of entrepreneurship and economic growth,” it reads, continuing, “This commission should take the necessary steps to ensure that the Internet remains an open platform for speech and commerce so that America continues to lead the world in technology markets.”  Translation: You are about to break the Internet and you will be deeply sorry if you do.

Reportedly the chairmen is hurriedly trying to make some amendments and include some assurances that the FCC will look at each and every one of these deals to separate the internet into a high road and low road, a fast and slow lane, but given the continued cozy industry club, toothless way the FCC has regulated, no one buys this for a either a New York minute or a South Dakota stroll.   Netflix has already cut deals with both Comcast and AT&T to make sure its streaming gets priority on the “last mile” even while voicing skepticism.  A drumbeat of opposition from Silicon Valley matched with other almost universal calls to delay issuing these new rules and step back and do better may be enough for the tone deaf FCC to actually get the message.

In other reports with $150 billion of cash reserves in the bank Apple has more cash on hand than Britain and Israel combined.  Adobe, Intel, and Google have another $80 billion in reserves as well.  Needless to say those kinds of bank balances get a lot of attention in the no-campaign contribution limits Washington, DC, so when any of them even sniffle everyone from the White House on down says, “God Bless You!”  Makes me wonder why there are reports that all of them are privately saying they also oppose the Comcast monopoly merger acquisition of Times-Warner cable, and only Netflix is willing to come out in public and oppose the merger so far.

Net neutrality could finally be the muscle flex from the Valley that we need to elbow Comcast back, rather than foolishly believing them and their faux regulator, the FCC, that their monopoly will work out OK for America.  Even Tom Wheeler seems to be getting the message.  In the wake of the building firestorm on his gutting net neutrality, he is offering to hold hearings on facing reality and finally making the internet a public utility, which most of America already believes it is and should be.

People get ready!

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FCC Needs to Stop Bluffing and Make Internet a Public Utility

Nomination Hearing Of Thomas Wheeler To Be Chairman Of The FCCNew Orleans   I get the sinking feeling that FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, the former industry lobbyist and trade association leader, is all bluff and no brass.  

            First, he leaks his new rules that clearly will end “net neutrality” by creating a two-tiered cost structure on speeds for internet access on the so-called “last mile” to the consumer, indicating the FCC under his leadership will allow the construction of a toll road there for those who have the cash. 

            Secondly, Wheeler acts surprised that there is a firestorm about this cave-in on the President’s commitment to maintain net neutrality, and believes that if he keeps saying that the FCC is committed to net neutrality, that’s the same as guaranteeing it is true.   He also seems surprised that his industry background makes people skeptical that he will stop the Comcast monopolist pursuit to control 40% of the broadband internet market by purchasing Times-Warner’s cable operations.  All of this seems more of a bait-and-switch than anything else.

            Then, he finally states the obvious that there isn’t “as much competition” in many parts of the communications industry “as consumers and innovators deserve.”  Come on, man!

            Somehow the new chairman thinks that tough talk can take the place of real action.   All he promises is that the FCC is going use its increasingly flaccid muscle to finally override state laws that restrict cities from creating their own broadband networks to reduce costs and improve access.  It goes without saying that the FCC has watched passively for years as the cable companies funded lobbyists and lawyers while spending millions greasing the rails to get these laws passed by legislators they had bought when they couldn’t buy enough city officials to stop it.  So, yes, better late than never, but then we have to also reckon with the fact of how many cities in the current economic environment will be able to afford to erect such networks and resist the money and lobbying to stop them from doing so.  We also have to realize that Wheeler is talking about a third tier where those lucky enough to live in such cities have faster and cheaper access while the rest of the country takes it in the ear.

            The biggest bluff is the real deal game changer.   He threatens to call hearings to determine whether or not the internet finally needs to be classified as a public utility, which is exactly what it is and needs to be, rather than a private cash cow for the monopolists and a barrier for the peoples’ progress.  Canada is in the process of calling such hearings.  Comments are already being requested by the FCC without hearings, more as a formality. 

Clearly our only real protection for a free and open internet, perhaps eventually available to all, is finally doing what should have already been done and making the internet universal as a utility, like gas, electric, and water.  The White House needs to make a call to their FCC chair and tell him to stop bluffing and show some real brass, and give American consumers and innovators what they really deserve, which is a guarantee of the future of the internet at its best, which will only happen as a publicly regulated utility.             

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FCC Caving in on Net Neutrality – What Next?

net-neutrality-graphicsbank-FCCNew Orleans  OK, let’s get this straight.  Compared to other developed countries around the world in the United States we already have slower and more expensive internet, and few workable programs to assure equality of access.  Under a Democratic President though we should be able to expect some progress in this area though, right?  Instead we wake up to find that we have a Federal Communications Commission, that is now going to embark on a massive cave-in to corporate media concerns and move to allow the evisceration of “net neutrality,” despite the many FCC pledges to protect the internet and keep it free and open to all.  Pinch me now, this must be a nightmare.  This can’t be happening!

            But, it is. 

            This must be what happens when the President appoints a corporate communications lobbyist as the FCC chair?

            Just as a reminder of what we are on the verge of losing, if the FCC successfully eliminates net neutrality that means that the big cable and internet access companies, like the monopolists at Comcast, can create toll roads requiring companies like Amazon, Netflix, Google or others to pay them for faster access for their products than “regular” internet, and of course in jacking the costs to them, the costs to us will also rise dramatically, pushing monetizing universal access even farther away from equity and more towards income.   Google is trying to lay its own high speed optical networks to hedge against the Comcasts and their rising rates, but such networks will be built in certain cities, not everywhere of course.  Past the issues for consumers, the end of net neutrality means new, upstart tech startups won’t be able to afford the access that allows them to compete against the new, wannabe legacy companies like Facebook, Google, and the like.  Does any of this sound like a win for any of us

            Given this horror, is there any way that the FCC or the Justice Department could ever allow Comcast to consolidate control of cable access through its merger monopoly purchase of Times-Warner cable?  Rationally, we should think not, but it’s scary.  It looks like the fix is in, and when the fix it is in, it’s always about protecting the insiders and penalizing the outsiders, which means the rest of us.

            With all of the big internet moguls visiting the White House recently and repeatedly to complain to the President about the NSA, their lost business, and their weird views of the world and how it suits them, it’s impossible for me to believe the subject of a profound policy pivot on “net neutrality” or the Comcast merger, never made it to the agenda list.  I have a bad feeling that the Silicon billionaires may be talking out of both sides of their mouth and saying to their public that they want “net neutrality,” while signaling to the government that they are OK with it going its own way, as long as their companies are protected and the door is slammed behind them.

            This all just smells bad to me, and worse may be coming if we all become “Comcast country” as well.

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