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2010-12-21

Obama Flip-Flop: FCC Vote Could End Net Neutrality

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When Obama was running for office three years ago, he pledged to support the principle of a free and open internet, saying, "I will take a backseat to no one with regards to net neutrality." Fast-forward to today and the FCC chair that Obama appointed is leading a vote that could end net neutrality. Today’s pivotal vote will decide on a new set of regulations that critics say will create a two-tiered system for the internet. We speak with Craig Aaron of the media reform group Free Press. [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

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

AMY GOODMAN: This is what President Obama said about net neutrality when he was running for office three years ago.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA: I will take a backseat to no one in my commitment to network neutrality, because once providers start to privilege some applications or websites over others, then the smaller voices get squeezed out and we all lose. The internet is perhaps the most open network history, and we have to keep it that way.

AMY GOODMAN: That was November 2007. Fast-forward to today, and the FCC chair that Obama appointed is leading the vote that could end net neutrality.

Today’s pivotal FCC vote will decide on a new set of regulations that critics say will create a two-tiered system for the internet. Under the proposed rules, internet service providers would be barred from slowing competitors’ services or websites but could charge higher fees for faster access to online content. Media reform advocates say that by allowing companies to ration access, the proposals violate the net neutrality principle of a free and open internet.

Unveiling his plan earlier this month, the FCC chair appointed by President Obama, Julius Genachowski, endorsed the implementation of what he called "usage-based pricing."

JULIUS GENACHOWSKI: Reasonable network management is an important part of the proposal, recognizing that what is reasonable will take account of the network technology and architecture involved. Our work has also demonstrated the importance of business innovation to promote network investment and efficient use, including measures to match price to cost, such as usage-based pricing.

AMY GOODMAN: On Monday, Genachowski’s plan picked up support from FCC commissioners Michael Copps and Mignon Clyburn — both Democrats. That’s enough for a majority when the five-member panel holds its vote today.

To talk about the FCC vote, I’m joined in Washington by Craig Aaron. He’s the managing director of the media reform group Free Press.

OK, Craig, so that everyone understands what is about to happen today, please explain what actions President Obama’s appointee is taking.

CRAIG AARON: So, what the net neutrality — excuse me, what the FCC is doing today, Amy, is voting on the FCC chairman’s proposal for new net neutrality rules. So these will be the new rules of the road that govern the internet. And unfortunately, these rules simply aren’t good enough. They’re half net neutrality or fake net neutrality, because they wouldn’t protect all internet users. For example, they would not protect wireless networks, so things that you would be prohibited from doing on your home wire line connection that companies couldn’t, say, discriminate or favor certain sites over the others, those protections are not extended to the wireless internet.

And unfortunately, this proposal appears to be riddled with loopholes that would open the door to all kinds of future abuses allowing companies like AT&T, Comcast, Verizon, the big internet service providers, to decide which websites are going to work, which aren’t, and which are going to be able to get special treatment. Of course, that’s going to be their own websites and services, a few select giant corporate partners, with the effect of slowing down everybody else and creating that divided highway that we’ve been fighting against for years.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go back to this issue of wireless versus when you’re wired in at home or at work — "wireless" meaning when your computer — you can go just anywhere. And explain how — the differences between the two and what will happen.

CRAIG AARON: Well, so, what we’re talking about in terms of wireless or wireless devices, like mobile phones and iPads and, you know, many things that are being developed now, of course, this is the future of the internet, you know, not using a cable connection or a fiber connection directly into your living room or office, but, of course, being out there using mobile technology, cellular technology. That’s the future of the wireless internet. Many people, that’s becoming their primary connection, especially in low-income communities, especially in minority communities. And this rule —

AMY GOODMAN: And explain how they’ll be treated differently.

CRAIG AARON: — unfortunately, doesn’t extend those protections.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain how then they will be treated differently.

CRAIG AARON: Well, there’s simply the rules — sure. The rules simply will not apply to wireless connections, so there won’t be any net neutrality protections in the wireless space. And that means that these wireless providers will be free to discriminate. They can decide to favor certain services over others. For example, if AT&T wants to develop a video service, they can give that priority treatment while slowing down or blocking Netflix. They could do that with any different kind of service that you would be able to access on the internet. And so, the effect is, essentially, creating two internets — one for wired users, one for wireless users — and basically condoning discrimination in the wireless space, which is the future of the internet. And that’s really the biggest flaw with what the FCC chairman is proposing today and what apparently is going to be voted out.

AMY GOODMAN: So, we’re talking today about President Obama’s appointee, right, the FCC commissioner, and —

CRAIG AARON: That’s right.

AMY GOODMAN: — the person who many consider the champion of media democracy, and that is Commissioner Copps, along with the other Democratic appointee, Clyburn. Explain how this is the bloc that is voting for this.

CRAIG AARON: Well, I wish I had a good explanation. It’s very disappointing that they have decided to go forward with this. I think this is party loyalty, unfortunately, trumping the public interest in this case. And they have decided — it’s our understanding that Commissioner Copps, Commissioner Clyburn tried to improve these rules, that the chairman refused to budge, apparently because he had already reached an agreement with AT&T and the cable lobbyists about how far these rules were going to go. And in their calculation, they decided to support these rules to put in the half measures or the partial net neutrality, and they have decided to vote for it. I think that’s very disappointing. And unfortunately, this is just another example of a major squandered opportunity.

There are millions and millions of Americans who have contacted the FCC. Ninety percent of the comments they received were supporting strong net neutrality. Commissioners Copps and Clyburn went across the country, heard from people all across the country about how important net neutrality is. But unfortunately, this is another example where the Obama administration has, you know, put forward a compromise on a compromise on a compromise and asked the American public to swallow it, while the companies really haven’t had to give up very much at all. And that’s where we are today.

AMY GOODMAN: Commissioner Clyburn is the daughter of the House Majority Whip, James Clyburn of South Carolina. And the Republicans are opposed to this, the two Republican appointees?

CRAIG AARON: Well, that’s right. And in the strange politics of Washington these days, the Republicans oppose any kind of regulation whatsoever, so they’re making all sorts of noise that this is some kind of massive overreach, when it couldn’t be further from the truth. But this is the game that the big phone and cable companies are playing. They’ve asked their Republican allies to make a lot of noise, talk about how any kind of regulation is bad, trying to force the FCC chairman and the Democrats on the Commission into this really false middle and trying to portray champions of net neutrality, public interest advocates, as some kind of extremists.

Unfortunately, the only thing we’re left with here is an extremely disappointing order that won’t give the American public the protections they need, that won’t give internet users the protections that they need and, I think, really jeopardizes the internet’s continued growth as an unrivaled source of economic innovation, of democratic participation, of free speech. This is a very big step in the wrong direction by the FCC today and, I think, a very big disappointment to everybody who believed not just President Obama, but Chairman Genachowski, when he, you know, spoke up and said he was going to protect the free and open internet no matter what.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think this vote could be changed today? Do you think powerful pressure could make a difference?

CRAIG AARON: Well, I certainly don’t think — the fight is far from over. And, you know, we’ll see what happens on the vote today. All indications are they’re going to move forward with these rules, and there’s no question the devil will be in the details. So we’ll have to look very carefully at what exactly is in these rules, how big are the loopholes, what are perhaps some of the good things, like increased transparency that will allow us to expose the bad actions of the phone and cable companies going forward. We’ll be exploring and pursuing any legal options that are out there to improve these rules or, if necessary, challenge them. And then we’ll begin, starting tomorrow, campaigning to fix these rules, to improve them, to bolster our champions on the Hill, like Senator Al Franken, who have spoken out strongly against what the FCC is doing. And we’ll begin that fight to make sure the free and open internet stays that way.

AMY GOODMAN: Craig Aaron, I —

CRAIG AARON: This is certainly not the end of that fight. It’s a setback.

AMY GOODMAN: I can’t help — I can’t help but think back three years ago — two-and-a-half years ago. It was the first — the night before the opening night of the Democratic convention in Denver. One of the first parties held was thrown by AT&T. Us — the reporters could not get in. Delegates were streaming in. And they were holding it for the Democrats, because they had turned around, particularly Senator Obama at the time, who said he would never grant retroactive immunity to the telecoms, but then turned around — they granted retroactive immunity for spying on the American people, and this big party was held. And I remember on Democracy Now! at the time holding up the DNC bag that all the delegates were getting, and there was the logo emblazoned on it that said "AT&T" on that bag. Craig Aaron, talk about who profits here and the amount of contributions that are flooding Congress now from the telecom companies.

CRAIG AARON: Well, as you may know, the phone and cable company lobby is one of the biggest in Washington. In recent years, they’ve deployed 500 lobbyists, basically one for every member of Congress, and that’s just what they report. AT&T is the biggest campaign giver in the history of campaign giving, as long as we have been tracking it. So they have really entrenched themselves. And Comcast, Verizon, the other big companies, are not far behind. And we’re really seeing that play out here, you know, once again, the big powerful corporate interests using their lobbying clout, using their campaign contributions, to undo any threat to their power, to their plans for what they want to do for the future of the internet.

And there’s no question that AT&T’s fingerprints are all over the FCC’s order today, and it seems that the FCC chairman was unwilling to [improve] this rule, because he was afraid that AT&T would walk away. And I guess that tells you everything you need to know. When you read AT&T’s positive statement today about what the FCC is doing, that’s a very telling statement and a very far cry from what President Obama and Julius Genachowski had promised to do once they get into office.

But unfortunately — and this is something we need to change in Washington — that’s how it works. You know, when AT&T wants to get together all of their lobbyists, there’s no room big enough. They had to rent out a movie theater. People from the public interest who are fighting for the free and open internet, you know, here in D.C., they can still share a cab. So we have a lot of work to do to undo the power of these big companies and challenge them. We had been very hopeful that the Obama administration was going to take steps in that direction, but it’s very clear that we’re going have to go back to the drawing board and really challenge this corporate power at every turn, because we’ve seen time and time again how damaging it can be to free speech and innovation.

AMY GOODMAN: Craig Aaron, I want to thank you very much for being with us, managing director of the media reform group Free Press, and end with a quote of Senator Al Franken, who said, "Mobile networks like AT&T and Verizon Wireless would be able to shut off your access to content or applications for any reason. For instance, Verizon could prevent you from accessing Google Maps on your phone, forcing you to use [their] own mapping program, Verizon Navigator, even if it costs money to use and isn’t nearly as good." Those were the words of Senator Al Franken.

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