On an episode of the Late Show last May, host Stephen Colbert made an off-color joke about Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin’s alleged bromance that generated a lot of attention and complaints — complaints that new FCC chairman Ajit Pai vowed to investigate. It is ironic that when Colbert joked on late night TV, telling Trump that “The only thing your mouth is good for is being Vladimir Putin’s cockholster,” he was threatened with an immediate review by the Federal Communications Commission. But when Republican candidate, Donald Trump, boasted about his assaults on women, recorded on tape as saying, “I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it … Grab ‘em by the pussy,” he was handed the presidency of the United States.
According to FCC rules, Colbert’s comment was technically considered “profane,” and therefore prohibited — before 10pm, that is. But the Late Show runs at 11:35pm, and the profanity was actually bleeped out for television. Conclusion: The FCC threat was a waste of time and a First Amendment foul. The presidents of the Writers Guild of America even weighed in to defend Colbert: “Pai’s remarks are just the latest in a series of statements by the current administration indicating a willful disregard for the First Amendment.” An FCC spokesperson later said they would not be pursuing the investigation.
While the Colbert incident showed the hypocrisy of Pai, it was nothing compared to what Pai and his FCC are up to. Net neutrality is what’s in serious danger at the moment.
Net neutrality is a boring-sounding topic that’s hugely important for every single one of us who uses the internet. It’s based in the idea of an open internet — that the resources of the internet should be fully accessible to all individuals, organizations and companies, and that internet service providers have to treat all internet traffic equally. They didn’t treat traffic equally before the earlier FCC intervened.
Back in 2015, after receiving more than 4 million phone calls from consumers, the FCC (under Obama and the leadership of Tom Wheeler) reclassified broadband access as a telecommunications service, which made it impossible for internet service providers like Verizon and Comcast to slow or block some content or services and give preferential treatment to others. Without net neutrality, if a Comcast customer wants to use an open source search engine like Firefox, but another search engine is willing to pay Comcast for a faster speed, Comcast could slow down Firefox — encouraging the customer to use the faster browser that pays Comcast more. Or if Verizon leadership holds political views that differ from those of an online media outlet (that’s reporting, say, on net neutrality), Verizon could slow down their traffic so much that those users would run in frustration. The 2015 rules protected consumers and content providers from such control and abuse on the part of the big telecoms, preserving the internet as free and open and uncontrolled by big money.
That could change shortly. Since Donald Trump took office in January 2017, there’s been a strong push by his newly-appointed FCC chief, Ajit Pai (former lobbyist and attorney for Verizon), to roll back the 2015 restrictions placed on ISPs. In fact, on May 18th, the Republican-controlled FCC voted in favor of beginning the process of reversing the 2015 net neutrality protections. (By the way, there was also new legislation in March of this year — lobbied for by Ajit Pai, and passed by Congress — that allows those same ISPs to sell and share private consumer information, including social security numbers, addresses, and browsing histories).
All of these efforts by Ajit Pai and his FCC to reverse privacy and net neutrality protections serve only the interests of the big telecommunication companies, while hurting every single internet user and content provider far into the future. The obvious question is: WHO IS THE FCC WORKING FOR??