On May 8th of last year, I spoke with Tom Wheeler, former chair of the FCC under President Obama, about the current FCC’s move in December 2017 to overturn protections for the Open Internet in America (otherwise known as “net neutrality”). The actions of current chair Ajit Pai (former attorney for Verizon) and his commission aimed to make it possible for internet service providers, such as Verizon and Comcast, to slow, throttle and block traffic from customers who do not pay enhanced fees. I spoke with Tom about the history of the Open Internet debate, and the risks the FCC actions pose for personal freedoms and the future of American entrepreneurism.
Now, more than a year later, the need for net neutrality, and the threat posed by chairman Pai and this FCC, are as real and present as ever.
Here’s my interview.
Zoe Licata (Newscoop): Again I want to thank you for talking to us about the really important issue that is net neutrality because while you were chair of the FCC and under President Obama, you ushered in these regulations and now they’re being threatened. For many internet users, they are concerned right now about internet service providers being allowed to block, throttle, or otherwise control their service. What is the cause for their concern other than simply the inconvenience of it?
Tom Wheeler: Well I think that you have to look back at the experience and net neutrality is not something that came on the stage all of a sudden during the Obama administration. It’s been a topic that has challenged the FCC in both Republican and Democratic commissions.
I mean, for instance, back in 2007, Comcast started blocking a streaming video service because it competed with their cable service. And the Republican FCC went in and said ‘no you can’t do that,’ and Comcast took the Republican FCC to court and argued in the court that because they were not a common carrier they were not prohibited from discriminating. And the court sided with them and overruled the FCC. When the first Obama-FCC, chaired by Julius Genachowski, came out with their net neutrality rules, Verizon took them to court and, in the well of the court before the 3 judge panel, the Verizon lawyer said ‘I have been instructed by my client that we may say that the reason we are appealing is that we intend to discriminate.” And because the FCC had not declared them a common carrier, once again the FCC was overruled. So what we did in 2015 was to come out and say that internet service providers are common carriers and that the obligation of the carriers to provide non-discriminatory access is at the heart of the right of consumers to get to the internet and the right of internet services to get to consumers.
So unfortunately, we have a history of internet service providers saying they want to discriminate to their benefit which is not to the benefit of consumers or those who are offering services to consumers.
ZL: So there are misconceptions about what net neutrality does. Donald Trump, before he was president in 2014, said it was a ‘top down power grab’ and it would affect conservative media. How do we deal with this lack of knowledge about what net neutrality is, and educate lawmakers who are going to be voting on this issue?
TW: There is a lack of knowledge, and the term “net neutrality” is not the world’s most descriptive term. Which is why we tried to rename it as an issue of the “open internet”. That the internet needs to be open for all. So the issue of mischaracterization, I mean Donald Trump doesn’t know what he’s talking about when he uses that description for what the open internet is all about.
As a matter of fact, those who would benefit are those for whom there might be blocking put in place. The Chinese government blocks people that they don’t agree with. And do you want your internet service providers to have that kind of authority? I think Donald Trump has it exactly backwards.
ZL: You yourself in 2015 were pushed to create these net neutrality safeguards by millions of signatures and public outcry as well as this history that you discussed earlier. The same kind of public outcry happened with Ajit Pai, the current FCC chair. Why did that public pressure work when you were chairman, but isn’t necessarily working now?
TW: Well I think it had a receptive regulator. We viewed our job as protecting consumers and I think that the Trump FCC has more of a predilection towards what is best for the companies involved.
ZL: Are there ways in which current policymakers at the FCC and Congress can benefit? Are there other causes for why they might be repealing net neutrality. Why would they want to have this repeal of net neutrality?
TW: Well I think they have a different definition of what the role government is. That the Trump FCC tends to see their view as what can we do to benefit the companies. And our position was what can we do to benefit consumers. I taught a class at Harvard Law School fall semester called ‘Finding the Public Interest’ and there are multiple definitions of the public interest and clearly the Trump FCC has define the public interest as what is best for the companies because they will then invest more or some other kind of hypothetical. I thought that the role of government is to stand up for consumers against what are essentially local monopolies. We found that ¾ of American households had at most one choice when it came to who they got their internet service from. And in a non-competitive environment like that the monopoly acts to benefit the monopoly, not to benefit the consumer.
ZL: On May 9th, Senator Ed Markey is introducing this Congressional Review Act resolution. What is the likelihood that this action will actually restore net neutrality?
TW: Well I think it’s a fabulous thing and Senator Markey’s leadership on this has been really constant throughout the whole process, not just with the Congressional Review Act. He’s got 50 votes in the Senate and that’s terrific. He needs on more vote or for a senator not to be present, and that’s encouraging. The likelihood of it passing the House could be more difficult. And the likelihood of President Trump signing it could be difficult. But those are really not the key issues. The key issue here is it’s important to get your representatives and senators to stand up and say who’s side are you on? Are you on the side of the companies and monopolies that want to exploit their position, or are you on the side of consumers who stand to benefit from an open internet but still don’t have any choice as to where they go?
Senator Lindsey Graham said it great in the Mark Zuckerberg hearing. He said ‘if I don’t like my Ford, I can go get a Chevy.” But Senator Graham, that choice doesn’t exists for ¾ of the households in America when it comes to internet service.
ZL: With the unknown with what might happen with Net Neutrality and Congress, states are passing bills. Connecticut just squeaked by their vote. Do you think that these state actions will be effective in protecting net neutrality, and what sort of conflicts could we see between state laws and the FCC repeal?
TW: I find it fascinating that the Republicans who opposed all of our efforts on net neutrality and who always said ‘oh you know, we don’t want a federal government interfering” now are all suddenly opposed to states stepping up and practicing federalism. It is terrific what is going on in California, Connecticut, Massachusetts is about to to introduce legislation. New York is looking…I mean it’s terrific. If the federal government will not step up to its responsibility then federalism says the state governments certainly may. And I think that’s terrific that they are.
ZL: For regular citizens who, they’ve put up petitions, they’re not sure what is gonna happen, what can they still be doing to support net neutrality, to just calm their nerves about what’s gonna happen when it’s all up in the air right now?
TW: Don’t give up. Keep pushing. Remember SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) and PIPA (Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property Act) and how what was suppose to be a slam dunk in the Congress got totally stopped because those who were using the internet rose up and said “no!”. Members of the Congress and members of the Senate are hearing from the monopoly ISPs, and they need to hear from the consumers who have to deal with those monopolies.
Tom Wheeler’s words are inspiring. And there is now an opportunity to overturn the December move by Pai and his commission. On May 9th, Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts introduced in the U.S. Senate a Congressional Review Act resolution that will allow the Senate to overturn the FCC’s recent move. There are already 50 Senate votes committed to protecting the Open Internet, and with just one more vote, the CRA will pass in the Senate.
Check here to see how your senator is voting: https://www.battleforthenet.com/scoreboard
Then call, email or tweet every senator who has indicated his/her intention to protect the interests of Verizon and Comcast and ATT— rather than those of the American people.
Zoe Licata (Cambridge, Massachusetts)
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