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2006-06-09

House Passes Controversial COPE Telecom Bill, Rejects Amendment to Protect Net Neutrality

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The House voted on legislation yesterday that could determine the future of the Internet and public access television in this country. We examine the implications of the Communications Opportunity, Promotion and Enhancement Act–known as the COPE bill–with Anthony Riddle of the Alliance for Community Media. [includes rush transcript]

The House voted on legislation yesterday that could determine the future of the internet and public access television in this country. In a vote of 321 to 101, the House voted to pass the Communications Opportunity, Promotion and Enhancement Act, known as the COPE bill. This controversial telecommunications legislation would permit phone and cable companies to operate Internet and other digital communications service as private networks, free of policy safeguards or governmental oversight. The bill would effectively end what is known as "net neutrality" which is the concept that that everyone, everywhere, should have free, universal and non-discriminatory access to the Internet. The bill would also cut back the obligation of cable TV companies to devote channels to public access and fund the facilities to run them. And the COPE bill would replace local cable franchises with national franchises.

Democratic Massachusetts Representative Ed Markey had proposed an amendment to the COPE bill that would have included stiff net neutrality regulations and prevented broadband providers from treating some Internet sites differently from others but the amendment was rejected.

  • Rep. Ed Markey (D–MA), speaking on the House floor, June 8th, 2006.

Opposition to the COPE bill came from all corners. The "Save The Internet" coalition, representing musicians, special interest groups, bloggers, and others, delivered almost 800,000 petition signatures to Congress in favor of net neutrality. Internet companies have also spoken out against provisions in the bill. Sergey Brin, co-founder of the search engine Google, met with members of the Commerce Committee to explain the importance of net neutrality for promoting Internet commerce and the CEO of E-bay Meg Whitman took the unusual step of personally e-mailing the auction site’s users to ask their support for promoting net neutrality protections. eBay stated that the e-mail reached over a million users.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Congressman Markey speaking from the House floor yesterday.

CONGRESSMAN MARKEY: Let me just make this point once again. The Bell companies had nothing to do with the creation of the Internet. The Bell companies had nothing to do with the development of the World Wide Web. The Bell companies had nothing to do with the browser and its development. In fact, AT&T was asked if they wanted to build the Internet, the packet-switched network in 1966. They turned the contract down when the government went to them. And so a company named BB&N, Bolt, Beranek, & Newman got the contract, a very small company — not AT&T. They had nothing to do with the development of the Internet, but now, at this late date, they want to come in and to create these bottleneck control points that allow them to extract Internet taxes, Internet fees from companies and individuals who have been using the Internet for a generation. It is this absence of non-discriminatory language in the Manager’s Amendment and in the bill to which I object.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined by Anthony Riddle. He’s the executive director of the Alliance for Community Media. Welcome to Democracy Now! Is net neutrality over?

ANTHONY RIDDLE: No, I’d say that we’re halfway to the apocalypse right now. There’s been a fairly bad bill for the Internet and for public media that has gone through the House. It’s the COPE Act, and it was passed in the dead of night last night, 3-1 margin. Effectively, it continues this sort of decision that was made by the Supreme Court last year in August which changed the Internet fundamentally. Before that time, it was understood that all data on the Internet was to be treated equally and that nobody was to block any information going from anyone to anyone. With the Supreme Court decision in last night’s bill, the companies that operate the wires or fibers that bring the Internet to and from your house have the ability to offer preferential treatment for pay, and also to block any content that they deem opposing their business interests.

AMY GOODMAN: So users already pay Internet service per month. So this does the other end, the content providers, people who put up websites would also have to pay?

ANTHONY RIDDLE: No, they actually pay already now. You know, if you have a website, you have to pay for space on the website and you have to pay for a pipeline for people to reach, and however big that pipeline is for people to come to your web site, that determines how many people can access your webstreams or whatever. So people are paying on both ends already. What they’re trying to do right now is get people to pay for the middle, so that you can pay for an EZ-Pass lane if you’re Disney and have a lot of money, and if you don’t, then you’re going to have to sit in the long lines waiting to go through the toll booth.

AMY GOODMAN: Is this Senate going to approve this kind of bill?

ANTHONY RIDDLE: There’s a set of bills in the Senate that are very similar. There’s some differences or whatever. What the Senate will have to do is pass a bill and then the two houses will have to get together and do what they call a "conference committee." Since both of those houses are controlled by the same party, you know, with large majorities, they can actually change the bills in toto in this conversation. They don’t have to stick to the bills that were actually passed. They can add anything or take anything out as long as both houses agree.

AMY GOODMAN: So what is your hope for the Senate?

ANTHONY RIDDLE: This is what I hope: what I hope is that the people who are within the range of this program and all over the United States will check in on this matter. This is of vital importance. We need every kind of community organization that is organized to check in and say that they oppose the Internet being controlled the way that it’s being proposed to be controlled, and that public media like PEG — Public, Educational, and Government access — needs to have the kind of funding that it’s had and that it needs to survive. That we need to be able to have the kind of channel capacity that we need in the future, because this is — this bill is really for the long distant future.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, these are two separate issues. One is net neutrality and the Internet, and the other is public access and saving it, and they’re together in the COPE bill or whatever version will also be in the Senate. So what has happened with access now? You were protesting at Congressmember Sheila Jackson Lee’s offices.

ANTHONY RIDDLE: Well, there was an amendment added to the COPE Act at the last minute, which would have allowed half of public access funding to be taken to provide an incentive for women and minority owners of small cable systems, which is really a good issue, and it was well-intended, but I think Jackson Lee didn’t quite understand what was at stake, that public access, for instance, has the most female subjects, female-run produced programming, the most managers, the same with minorities. This is where we go, you know, to get our message out because we can’t get it out anywhere. When she understood that, she very graciously agreed to withdraw the bill with the idea that Congressman Markey and Dingle and some of the others would help to address this issue in a different way. But we averted losing half of P.E.G. funding just last night, just before the vote.

AMY GOODMAN: You were in the gallery when Markey was making a statement and the vote.

ANTHONY RIDDLE: Yes. He made a very impassioned statement. It was really good. It’s such a contrast to see Markey making this statement about freedom and understanding and how people ought to be able to interact, and then to see the other side making these impassioned pleas that we should pass this plea, because what the American people need is $20 off of their cable TV bill.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, wasn’t it Mike McCurry, the former spokesperson for President Clinton, who really was the front man, the spokesperson for the key lobbyist for a kind of Astroturf campaign where progressive bloggers had ads on their websites that said, you know, stop government interference or regulation of the Internet.

ANTHONY RIDDLE: This is — yeah, you’re right, and this is like 1984. If they’re saying stop government interference, what they really mean is we want interference. It’s just like the clean air act. It’s been amazing. You know, I’ve known how the government ran for a long time, but I never really understood the power of money. In California, where there’s a similar bill being offered at the state level, the telephone company bought every single lobbyist in the state. When the Cable Television Association went to get a lobbyist, there was not a lobbyist to be found, not even for them. When we talk about over on the hill, Verizon had over 200 lobbyists, just on this bill. That’s not even talking about AT&T. They’ve bought every single person they could work on.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think this is payoff to the telecoms for cooperating with the government and the N.S.A., and handing over the phone logs of tens of millions of Americans?

ANTHONY RIDDLE: I don’t want to sound cynical, but I think that’s absolutely what happened. I think, you know, the government goes and they say, you know, we’ve got this massive legislation that’s really important to you, this is what you really want, you wrote it, we can pass it, this is what we need of you. You bring up a really good point, because what we’re talking about is handing over the complete communication system to people who have no regard for your privacy, who will hand stuff over without warrant or anything. I think people really need to be up in arms about this.

AMY GOODMAN: When does the Senate vote?

ANTHONY RIDDLE: We keep hearing different things, it’s hard to tell. I know they all want to get out before summer starts so that they can get back and campaign, because it’s campaign season. But if the people check in really heavily on net neutrality, on public access —

AMY GOODMAN: Where do they find that information?

ANTHONY RIDDLE: They can go to the Alliance website, which is www.alliancecm.org, they can go to www.saveaccess.org, and they can also go to the Free Press site, which is Save the Internet. We implore all organizations — we’ve even got the Christian Coalition and the N.R.A. involved in this, because everybody understands that if you have anything that’s remotely not mainstream, that this can be blocked if these measures go through.

AMY GOODMAN: Anthony Riddle, I want to thank you very much for being with us, executive director of the Alliance for Community Media.

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