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Obama Calls for Net Neutrality, But His Own Industry-Tied FCC Appointee Could Stand in the Way

November 12, 2014
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In a strong statement in favor of a free and open Internet, President Obama has called on the Federal Communications Commission to uphold the principle of net neutrality by classifying the Internet as a public utility. Obama said such protections would prevent Internet service providers like Comcast from blocking access to websites, slowing down content or providing paid fast lanes for Internet service. Obama’s proposal comes as his appointed FCC chair, Tom Wheeler, a former lobbyist for the cellphone and cable industries, is considering breaking with the president on net neutrality. According to The Washington Post, Wheeler met with officials from Google, Yahoo and Etsy on Monday and told them he preferred a more nuanced solution. Wheeler reportedly said: "What you want is what everyone wants: an open Internet that doesn’t affect your business. What I’ve got to figure out is how to split the baby." On Monday, protesters called on Wheeler to favor net neutrality as they blockaded his driveway when he attempted to go to work. Protests also took place in a dozen cities last week after The Wall Street Journal reported the FCC is considering a "hybrid" approach to net neutrality. This would apply expanded protections only to the relationship between Internet providers and content firms, like Netflix, and not to the relationship between providers and users. We discuss the ongoing debate over the Internet’s future with Steven Renderos of the Center for Media Justice.


TRANSCRIPT

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

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: As President Obama attends trade talks in China, he used a video message on Monday to issue a strong statement in favor of a free and open Internet. He called for the Federal Communications Commission to uphold the principle of net neutrality by classifying the Internet as a public utility. Obama said such protections would prevent Internet service providers like Comcast from blocking access to websites, slowing down content or providing paid fast lanes for Internet service.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Cable companies can’t decide which online stores you can shop at or which streaming services you can use. And they can’t let any company pay for priority over its competitors. To put these protections in place, I’m asking the FCC to reclassify Internet service under Title II of a law known as the Telecommunications Act. In plain English, I’m asking them to recognize that for most Americans the Internet has become an essential part of everyday communication and everyday life. The FCC is an independent agency, and ultimately the decision is theirs alone, but the public has already commented nearly four million times.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: President Obama’s proposal comes as his appointed FCC chairman, Tom Wheeler, a former lobbyist for the cellphone and cable industries, is considering breaking with the president on net neutrality. According to The Washington Post, Wheeler met with officials from Google, Yahoo, Etsy on Monday and told them he preferred a more nuanced solution. Wheeler reportedly said, quote, "What you want is what everyone wants: an open Internet that doesn’t affect your business. What I’ve got to figure out is how to split the baby." On Monday, protesters called on Wheeler to favor net neutrality as they blockaded his driveway when he attempted to go to work.

DR. MARGARET FLOWERS: I’m sorry, but we can’t let you go to work today, because you work for Comcast, Verizon and AT&T, and not for the people. And so, we can’t let you go there, because you’re selling us out on Internet neutrality, and that’s not OK with us. So, we want to know which side you’re on, Tom.

AMY GOODMAN: Protests also took place in a dozen cities last week after The Wall Street Journal reported the FCC is considering a so-called "hybrid" approach to net neutrality. This would apply expanded protections only to the relationship between Internet providers and content firms, like Netflix, and not to the relationship between providers and users.

For more on the latest developments in the debate over the Internet’s future, we’re joined by Steven Renderos of the Center for Media Justice. As the Center’s national organizer, he helped arrange two hearings with FCC Chair Tom Wheeler earlier this year. Renderos is also part of a network of 175 social justice organizations from around the country called Media Action Grassroots Network, or MAG-Net.

Welcome to Democracy Now!

STEVEN RENDEROS: Thank you for having me, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: First start by talking about the significance of what President Obama said.

STEVEN RENDEROS: It’s significant in the sense that what President Obama said was really basically agree on all the points that we’ve been making around net neutrality, the things that we actually agree to in regards to net neutrality, meaning that there should be no blocking or discrimination, meaning that Comcast can’t block the certain websites that I want to visit, that there shouldn’t be fast lanes and slow lanes, no paid prioritization schemes that allow websites to pay for faster access to consumers. And most importantly for us, he talked about applying these rules also to mobile broadband, which is where we know that a lot of, you know, users of color tend to access the Internet, through their cellphone devices; and in addition to that, also said that the way to do it is by reclassifying the Internet as a Title II broadband telecommunications service, essentially treating it like a utility, which is, for most of us, what it is today.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Steve, within hours of President Obama making the announcement earlier this week, my inbox at the New York Daily News was literally flooded by opposition candidates from industry and other conservative groups who basically portrayed this as a catastrophe for business and for innovation on the Internet in America. How important is this battle going to be now over the next few weeks on this issue of what the FCC decides?

STEVEN RENDEROS: Critically important. I mean, some of the indications that we’ve gotten from Chairman Tom Wheeler is that he’d like to delay the vote now. When he first came into office about a year ago into his position at the FCC—

AMY GOODMAN: He may not have a choice, if they keep blockading his driveway.

STEVEN RENDEROS: Absolutely. He might not even be able to get to the FCC. But he talked about wanting to get these rules done efficiently and quickly, using a different set of authorities under Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act. But now all of a sudden that the president has laid it out fairly clearly what the roadmap is, now all of a sudden he wants to step back and delay, which is unfortunate. Obviously, like shortly after President Obama’s statement, Senator Ted Cruz came out with his tweet, which is ironic, given that it’s because of an open Internet that Senator Ted Cruz has like a platform like Twitter to be able to share his misguided interpretations of what Obama is saying. But it also provides a platform for other voices to be heard.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And this whole issue of the government interfering with free enterprise over the Internet, doesn’t it somehow distort the historical record of how the Internet initially was created and the backbone of the Internet, which was largely built as a result of government financing?

STEVEN RENDEROS: Certainly. If you want to maintain innovation, maintain a place where the Internet is an economic driving engine for us and all of our communities throughout the United States, you want to maintain net neutrality. That’s all it’s really doing, is basically keeping in place what we’ve had with the Internet since its inception, how we’ve experienced the Internet since its inception. It’s not about protecting Google or Facebook. It’s really about providing the conditions for the next Google and Facebook to exist.

AMY GOODMAN: And just to clarify, the Ted Cruz tweet: "'Net Neutrality' is Obamacare for the Internet: the Internet should not operate at the speed of government."

STEVEN RENDEROS: Sure, which means absolutely nothing. It’s great political theater. But again, it’s because of an open Internet that Senator Ted Cruz has a platform like that. But it’s also because of an open Internet that we have platforms to hear about what’s happening in Ayotzinapa in Mexico. It’s because of an open Internet that we get to hear about what’s happening in Ferguson—all of these political moments much more significant because people have a platform to actually share their stories.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, explain what you mean by that, because for people who aren’t familiar with this whole debate, why wouldn’t they be able to know what’s happening in Ferguson with a, quote, "hybrid" model? Why wouldn’t they know what’s happening in Mexico?

STEVEN RENDEROS: If you think about the foundational principles of the Internet, which is very different to the rest of our media system, you know, users are both consumers and producers of information. There’s no distinction. So, you know, I can create a blog. I can start a Twitter stream. I can start, you know, a Tumblr, like a lot of black trans women of color do. They use Tumblr to, you know, shape their stories, shape their representations, because the mainstream media doesn’t really reflect their lived experiences. On the Internet, there is no distinction, and so we are both consumers and producers of information, meaning that we can control and shape our own narratives.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, one of the things that Wheeler initially tried to do was make a distinction between preserving net neutrality on broadband or through cable services, for example, and—but not necessarily in terms of mobile net. But recent reports have shown that the problems of telephone companies and mobile companies also slowing down content has grown. Can you talk about that, as well?

STEVEN RENDEROS: Sure. I mean, the first thing to really think about is who’s on mobile? Sixty percent of Latinos primarily use their cellphones to access the Internet. Forty-three percent of African Americans use the Internet [sic] to primarily access the Internet.

AMY GOODMAN: The phone.

STEVEN RENDEROS: So that’s who we’re talking about. Yeah, through their cellphone. So, that’s who we’re talking about. That’s who needs to be protected. Part of the fallacy of the FCC’s 2010 net neutrality rules was that it completely left wireless unprotected. But the reality is, for the Internet user, like my mom, for example, when she’s accessing Facebook through her cellphone, that is the Internet to her. So it doesn’t matter; there’s no distinction between accessing it through a computer or through a cellphone for the user. It’s the Internet.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And some of the recent examples that were reported on in terms of cellphone providers impinging on net neutrality?

STEVEN RENDEROS: Sure. We’ve seen examples in which AT&T, for example, blocked the FaceTime app on the iPhone. We’ve seen examples, actually, shortly after 2010, the 2010 FCC net neutrality rules, MetroPCS coming out with a tiered data plan that—where you pay $40, and you get access to certain websites; you pay $10 more, and you get access to more websites—which is essentially just taking the cable model and applying it to the Internet.

AMY GOODMAN: A series of public hearings have been held to draw attention to support for net neutrality, including one in Brooklyn last month. Among those who testified was Cayden Mak, technical director of 18 Million Rising.

CAYDEN MAK: I am 100 percent serious when I say I come from the Internet. The Internet raised me. The Internet saved my life. Have you ever been young and queer and brown in the great American suburb? Because I have. It takes its toll. Not all of us make it out—of the closet, of the subdivision, of our teenage years. Man, I am almost 28 years old, and it’s been a decade since I lived there, and I am still healing those wounds.

An open Internet isn’t just a matter of survival. It’s a matter of opening us to the possibility of magic, not just magic in an Arthur C. Clarke sense that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, but magic in the sense that we’re open to the encounter that will change us. The Internet gave me my first chosen family. It wasn’t just about ego tripping that there were these college kids on this message board who wanted to talk to me about ideas. It was about the moment of mutual recognition. It was a series of encounters that changed everything. The foggy predetermined procession of days snapped into focus. There, a route of escape that was not forfeit or death, a word for how I felt, concepts that described what I saw, other people who made it out alive. That’s how I know an open Internet is about making magic. I’ve seen it happen. I am living proof that when you have an open network that empowers the least among us to become creators just as much as the rich and powerful, we are literally saving lives.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Cayden Mak, technical director of 18 Million Rising. Your response, Steve?

STEVEN RENDEROS: Online groups, like 18 Million Rising, Presente.org, Color of Change, would not exist were it not for an open Internet. And we need those spaces for—you know, for Asian Americans, for black and Latinos to have a space to actually shape and be part of the political system in a very significant way, and the open Internet provides that for us.

AMY GOODMAN: Tom Wheeler is the former head of the NCTA, right, the National Cable and Telecommunications Association—

STEVEN RENDEROS: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: —which is now headed by Michael Powell, who is the former head of the FCC, Tom Wheeler, so they just switched places.

STEVEN RENDEROS: Talk about the revolving door. There’s no better example than that.

AMY GOODMAN: Yet President Obama appointed him.

STEVEN RENDEROS: Absolutely. And I think it will be an interesting moment now to see what Tom Wheeler chooses to do. There was a recent Washington Post article that I think Juan alluded to, where Tom Wheeler is making—you know, separating himself, saying, "We’re an independent agency. We’re going to do our own thing." And there’s some real—he called President Obama’s approach to net neutrality "naive" and "simplistic." It could be "naive" and "simplistic." And what’s naive and simplistic is to really consider that four million people have, you know, commented on this issue, the most ever at the FCC, and to not really take those voices into account, 99 percent of which were in support of net neutrality.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Steve, I’d like to ask you about a touchy question, because President Obama, in taking this stand, is not only going against the cable industry and the telecommunications industry, he’s also going against many of the major civil rights organizations in the country, who have been remarkably AWOL, some of them, on this issue of net neutrality or have actually been supporting the cable companies and the telecommunication companies, which always provide their conferences and their conventions and their programs major funding. Can you talk about this internal battle in the civil rights community over the issue of net neutrality?

STEVEN RENDEROS: Certainly. It’s unfortunate to see that a lot of the legacy civil rights organizations have taken this kind of position when it comes to such a critical, important issue in today’s day. You know, Rashad Robinson from Color of Change oftentimes compares net neutrality to the Voting Rights Act from the '60s. So I think it's very unfortunate that that’s the reality today. However, there’s a whole online community of people of color, of queer, trans, other communities that really stake out their voices through an online—through an open net. So, yes, the legacy civil rights organizations are not with us on this issue, but there are new civil rights organizations, like Color of Change, Presente.org, 18 Million Rising, that really present where we really should be at.

AMY GOODMAN: And the number of people who responded online to the FCC around an open Internet? Was it—

STEVEN RENDEROS: Four million.

AMY GOODMAN: Four million people. And the percentage of those who support an open Internet, not the so-called "hybrid" model that Wheeler is putting forward?

STEVEN RENDEROS: Ninety-nine percent. And what’s interesting is four million people, and that’s the most that the FCC has ever received on any issue. This is including Janet Jackson’s Super Bowlgate. So, you know, it’s pretty significant.

AMY GOODMAN: Steven Renderos, I want to thank you for being with us, with the Center for Media Justice. He is the national organizer.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, a three-star lieutenant general says the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been lost. Stay with us.


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