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Abandoning “Net Neutrality,” FCC Chair Backs Two-Tiered Internet Fees

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The Federal Communications Commission is being accused of abandoning “net neutrality” rules that would ensure a free and open internet. On Wednesday, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski unveiled proposals that would allow internet service providers to charge higher fees for faster access to online content. We speak to Josh Silver, co-founder of the media reform group Free Press. [includes rush transcript]

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

JUAN GONZALEZ: The Federal Communications Commission is being accused of abandoning “net neutrality” rules that would ensure a free and open internet. On Wednesday, FCC chair Julius Genachowski unveiled proposals that would allow internet service providers to charge higher fees for faster access to online content.

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: Major firms like Verizon and Google have pushed for a two-tiered system that would allow them to charge fees. To talk more about the FCC proposal, we’re joined by Josh Silver, co-founder of the media reform group Free Press.

Josh, talk about Julius Genachowski, what you expected and what he’s done.

JOSH SILVER: Well, first of all, I’m going to back up and talk about why this matters. What most people don’t understand when they hear “net neutrality,” their eyes gloss over, and they say, “How does that affect me?” What’s going on right now is we’re in the middle of a major transition from one media technology to another media technology: the internet, the first two-way experience. And with the internet brings this possibility that any website could act as a television network, a radio network. It is the ultimate game changer in the future of how Americans access information and learn about the world. Now, what we’re seeing is, since the internet started about 40 years ago, there’s this principle called “net neutrality.” And it essentially says that the companies that bring you the internet into your home or business cannot indiscriminately say, “This is going to move fast, this is going to move slow, and that’s our decision,” in order to make more money or for political gain or what have you. So what we’re seeing is, as the internet becomes more ubiquitous, the companies that deliver the internet — Comcast, AT&T, Verizon — they enjoy monopoly or duopoly control of connections, and they want to monetize the internet by getting rid of rules that prevent them from creating fast lanes and slow lanes.

The President, as you may recall, when he was campaigning, said, “I will take a backseat to no one in protecting net neutrality.” It was a huge moment for everybody who cares about this issue. The FCC chairman, Julius Genachowski, also a big proponent. But what’s been alarming is what’s happened since President Obama has taken office. Just like in so many other issues, there’s been this big debate amongst the industry players, like Verizon and Google. The public interest community has been left out of the ring, so to speak. The FCC chairman has done nothing major in those two years since Obama took office. And what we’re seeing right now is, finally, after five, six years of debate over this issue at the FCC, the FCC chairman has introduced a set of rules, last Wednesday, that will be voted on December 21st, that are wrought with loopholes, that would essentially be the end of the internet as we know it. It allows these companies to prioritize content at will, essentially because of definitions and legal terms, and it doesn’t apply at all to wireless connections, which is the future of the internet.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Josh, what about this whole issue in recent reports about the battle between Comcast and Level 3? Some people are mistakenly thinking that that’s part of the battle over net neutrality. Could you explain that?

JOSH SILVER: Well, so, there’s been several incidents over the years of companies like Comcast, which, keep in mind, is both the largest residential internet provider in the country, the largest cable company in the country, and also they’re about to buy NBC Universal — again, despite the fact that the President said he’s against the consolidation of media ownership, it’s universally agreed that this deal is going to go through. The question is, will the FCC and the Department of Justice provide any kind of protections of consumers?

Comcast was caught blocking a file-sharing program called BitTorrent a couple years ago. Just this week, they were busted breaking two net neutrality-type rules. They’re not exactly, because of the legal details, but one would prevent a company from actually letting people buy modems that connect to the internet and provide alternate hardware from Comcast, to rent every month hardware. Another one would force Netflix to actually pay another company, Level 3, that is the backbone of the internet, to guarantee fast service. This is the beginning of the end. It’s the first domino, if you will.

But there’s an important point here. December 21st, this is coming to a vote. What was introduced on Wednesday is called a draft of the so-called rule at the FCC. And in order for it to become an official rule, three FCC commissioners have to vote for it. The two Republicans automatically said, “No good. Not going happen. This is terrible.” But the two Democrats are good. Commissioners Mike Copps and Commissioner Mignon Clyburn are both staunch net neutrality advocates. Both have consistently stood up for the public interest. And Julius Genachowski has to get their votes in order for this thing to become the rule.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you on a slightly different issue, but you just heard this whole debate on WikiLeaks, and you were talking about government intervention on the internet. One of WikiLeaks’ most vocal critics is — in Washington has been independent Senator Joseph Lieberman. On Wednesday, he pressured to drop hosting WikiLeaks on its servers. This is what Lieberman said.

SEN. JOSEPH LIEBERMAN: Any companies, like Amazon just broke its — cut WikiLeaks off from using its servers to distribute. There’s a company now in Sweden — I think it’s called Bahnhof — which is providing that kind of access to the internet to WikiLeaks. We’ve got to stop them from doing that, and we’ve got to apprehend Mr. Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, and bring him to justice as a violator of the Espionage Act, because if we don’t, this will keep happening.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that was Lieberman. dropped WikiLeaks. Now they’re at They’ve just moved in the last hours to Switzerland. Your response?

JOSH SILVER: Well, this becomes a policy question, when I look at it. And the question is, should companies or the government be allowed to censor and block content that’s on the web at will, or do they need to follow constitutional law? And so, that’s really, at the end of the day, what’s the question here, and whether there should be stronger laws that enable the Federal Communications Commission to protect WikiLeaks and other transparency entities so that their content cannot be blocked.

Right now, the problem is net neutrality is part of a larger issue, which is, the policy has not caught up with the technology. And that’s what we’re seeing with the internet. And the problem is, is in some ways this is a more grave and more dire set of questions than, for example, the banking debacle and the failure of the Securities and Exchange Commission to deal with that, because enlightened economic policy can fix the economy and get it back on track. The problem here is, you can’t put this genie back in the bottle. If you fundamentally change how the internet works, the internet will become like cable television, where Comcast and Verizon and AT&T decide what’s on, how fast it goes. ”Democracy Now!, you can’t pay us enough to guarantee fast, crisp video. You’re going to be grainy and slow, while CNN and others are fast.”

JUAN GONZALEZ: Let me ask you quickly about this vote, December 21st. You’re saying that the two Republicans are opposing Genachowski’s proposal. Does that mean that the Republicans are in favor of net neutrality —

JOSH SILVER: You wish.

JUAN GONZALEZ: — and against the telecoms and the cable companies?

JOSH SILVER: No, you know, it’s another example of the Republicans — and granted, you know, the majority of the U.S. House has told the FCC — we haven’t even mentioned the FCC doesn’t even have authority over internet providers right now, and Genachowski isn’t even going to try to reassert it. That’s how corrupt the process is. And everyone knows that no matter what happens on December 21st, the rule will be challenged in court and instantly stayed or overturned. So, in many ways, the corruption is so acute that this is all symbolic. But the Republicans are opposed to any provisions that control internet providers. It’s the same way that they say, “We’re opposed to any taxes on millionaires.” They are so completely out of touch with the public interest that there’s really — there’s no hope for them. The hope is that Commissioners Copps and Clyburn stay strong.

AMY GOODMAN: Josh Silver, we want to thank you for being with us — we’ll certainly follow this story — president and co-founder of Free Press.

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