By: Denise M. Champagne//July 3, 2014
By: Denise M. Champagne//July 3, 2014//
Time is running out for consumers to make their voices heard on new regulations being crafted by the Federal Communications Commission that will dictate Internet availability for years to come.
The FCC is considering rules that would allow giant Internet service providers like Comcast Corp., Verizon Communications Inc. and AT&T Inc. to create fast lanes for their business partners and friends who can afford to pay, while start-ups, innovators and potential competitors are priced out, according to Michael J. Copps, a former FCC commissioner.
He was one of four witnesses testifying Tuesday before a field hearing of the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, hosted in Chairman Patrick Leahy’s home state of Vermont, at the University of Vermont in Burlington.
Copps said more and more people understand the Internet is the most opportunity-creating tool of recent time, opening doors to jobs, education, health care, equal opportunity and news and information necessary to communicate.
He is now a special media advisor to the media and democracy reform initiative with Common Cause, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy organization.
“Is the Net going to be the tool of the many that helps us all live better lives or will it become the playground of the privileged few that only widens the many divides that are creating stratified and unequal Americans?” Copps asked. “Are we heading toward an online future with fast lanes for the 1 percent and slow lanes for the 99 percent?”
The FCC, as it announced it May, is in the process of making rules to best protect and promote an open Internet.
“The FCC has previously concluded that broadband providers have the incentive and ability to act in ways that threaten Internet openness,” the notice states. “There are no rules that stop broadband providers from trying to limit Internet openness. That is why the notice adopted by the FCC today [May 15] starts with a fundamental question: ‘What is the right public policy to ensure that the Internet remains open?’”
It notes plans to rely on suggestions made by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in its January decision in Verizon v. FCC, using the FCC’s authority to promote broadband deployment to all Americans under Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. The FCC is also considering using its authority under the telecommunications regulation found in Title II of the Communications Act.
The Court of Appeals, in its decision, struck down key portions of the FCC’s Open Internet Order, which promoted the idea of net neutrality — or an equal playing field — by preventing broadband providers from blocking services or slowing down certain content providers, opening the door to discrimination.
Verizon successfully challenged the FCC’s authority to make such rules, saying it could not regulate broadband providers by treating them as common carriers. The court agreed the FCC could not regulate broadband providers in the same way as common carriers because they were not classified as common carriers.
“In one of the strangest decisions ever made by a federal agency, the commission decided over a decade ago that the broadband infrastructure on which the Internet rides wasn’t telecommunications at all and was there outside the consumer protection and common carriage requirements that are integral parts of the telephone service we all grew up with,” Copps said.
He said those protections were part of Title II and that there can be no open Internet until the FCC puts broadband telecommunications under Title II of the Telecommunications Act.
“The fate of the Internet will be decided in the next few months and what’s decided in those few months might be very very difficult or impossible to undo, so the time is now for concerned citizens to be speaking out,” Copps said. “In the end, this all comes back to democracy. Free expression and democratic engagement suffer in a gated Internet. Consigning alternative nonprofit and dissenting voices to the slow lane makes it harder for users to access different kinds of information.”
Lisa Groeneveld, chief operating officer and co-owner of Logic Supply Inc., a Vermont business founded more than 10 years ago, entirely reliant on Web business, compared paid prioritization, also known as fast lanes, to driving on an actual highway.
“It’s almost as if you’re driving down a two-lane highway and everybody’s going 55,” she said. “You feel pretty happy until someone builds their own lane and they can go 100. You’re not going any slower. If you can’t get into a lane going 100, it feels slower. That speed is relative. People will leave your site if it just feels slower to them in relation to another site that might feel faster and that’s the inequity that Logic Supply wants to avoid with fast lanes.”
Cabot Orton, whose family has owned The Vermont Country Store for more than 70 years in rural Vermont, talked about how his grandparents grew their small shop through rural free delivery and later public commitments to rural electrification and the interstate highway system.
“Contrary to conventional wisdom, these public systems worked to the betterment of private enterprise by connecting people in unprecedented ways, while creating a level playing field,” he said. “None would have been built without every taxpayer paying for it.”
Orton said no one had mentioned mobile service, which, for retailers like him, is the future, but where speed is also a more critical component to survival.
Illustrating the changes in technology, Orton said he noticed a huge purchasing spike early this year at about 10 p.m. that was coming from iPads, but buying things that were traditionally purchased by customers using catalogs.
“It was all of the mothers and grandmothers who got an iPad for Christmas,” he said. “They were in bed at night with an iPad instead of a book or catalog next to them and the world changed.”
No one testified on behalf of large broadband providers in the hearing, “Preserving an Open Internet: Rules to Promote Competition and Protect Main Street Consumers.”
Martha Reid, Vermont state librarian, talked about the importance an open Internet has for libraries to preserve a free flow of information.
She said libraries are often the only place in town — from rural communities to urban neighborhoods — to offer free Internet access and are the go-to places for job seekers, independent researchers and local entrepreneurs. She said that access would have to be cut off if the Internet does not remain open.
Reid said bowing to corporate interests would put libraries and the millions of citizens they serve in jeopardy.
“We cannot afford a society where information is available to only those who have deep pockets,” she said.
Leahy said the hearing will become part of the record in Washington.
“The debate that’s happening today in Washington over net neutrality is critically important, but it shouldn’t be just in the corridors of Washington,” he said. “The outcome of this debate will have a huge effect on small businesses, community institutions and consumers. It’s critical that we get this right. I do not want to see an Internet that is divided into the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots.’”
Leahy, along with Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Calif., has introduced legislation, the Online Competition and Consumer Choice Act, to require the FCC to ban so-called “paid prioritization” agreements between broadband and content providers.
Serving on the House Energy & Commerce Committee with Matsui is Rep. Peter Welch, also a Vermont Democrat, who joined Leahy, along with a representative of Vermont’s junior senator, Sen. Bernie Sanders, an Independent who caucuses with the Democratic Party.
A video of the hearing may be viewed on the Senate Judiciary Committee’s website at www.judiciary.senate.gov.