Former Comcast & Verizon attorneys manage the FCC, are about to kill the Internet

We’ve written in this space about “net neutrality” (see below for Yves Smith’s comment on that phrasing). The latest is this:

DC Circuit rules against Net Neutrality; big (bad) Internet changes could be coming

There I said, quoting the Internet-friendly organization Free Press:

The FCC — under the leadership of former Chairman Julius Genachowski — made a grave mistake when it failed to ground its open Internet rules on solid legal footing.

Indeed. The problem is simple. The cable industry–friendly FCC wants to keep the Internet from being called, and regulated as, a “public utility” (a term with legal implications) and to keep cable wiring from being treated as a “common carrier” (another legal term with significant implications). Among the ways a “common carrier” is restricted is this:

An important legal requirement for common carrier as public provider is that it cannot discriminate, that is refuse the service unless there is some compelling reason. As of 2007, the status of Internet service providers as common carriers and their rights and responsibilities is widely debated (network neutrality).

Your phone wires, long-distance and local, are common carriers, meaning that the phone company is forced to carry your communication regardless of who you are or what you say. No censorship, no discrimination, no extra charges just for you. Now reread the last sentence in the quote above. They could call the Internet a public utility, and cable wiring a common carrier, but they won’t. Thus the legal hoops they keep trying to jump through, that the court keeps rejecting outright.

Any guesses why the FCC is doing the telecom’s business and not yours? For answers, read on.

Lee Fang has the goods on the FCC

Lee Fang is here to tell us what’s going on with the FCC. Consider this part to be important background for the situation Yves Smith describes below. Fang, writing at VICE (my emphasis and paragraphing throughout):

The open Internet may soon become a thing of the past. Earlier this week, the Wall Street Journal dropped something of a bombshell with leaked news that the Federal Communications Commission is planning to abandon so-called “net neutrality” regulations—rules to ensure that Internet providers are prevented from discriminating based on content. Under the new proposed system, companies such as Comcast or Verizon will be able to create a tiered Internet, in which websites will have to pay more money for faster speeds, a change that observers predict will curb free speech, stifle innovation and increase costs for consumers.

Like so many problems in American government, the policy shift may relate to the pernicious corruption of the revolving door. The FCC is stocked with staffers who have recently worked for Internet Service Providers (ISP) that stand to benefit tremendously from the defeat of net neutrality.

The backgrounds of the new FCC staff have not been reported until now.

About those backgrounds, Fang says:

Network Money Scene thumbnail

“There is no America. There is only IBM and AT&T and Exxon. Those are the nations of the world.” (Click to listen.)

Take Daniel Alvarez, an attorney who has long represented Comcast through the law firm Willkie Farr & Gallagher LLP. In 2010, Alvarez wrote a letter to the FCC on behalf of Comcast protesting net neutrality rules, arguing that regulators failed to appreciate “socially beneficial discrimination.” The proposed rules, Alvarez wrote in the letter co-authored with a top Comcast lobbyist named Joe Waz, should be reconsidered. … Alvarez is now on the other side, working among a small group of legal advisors hired directly under Tom Wheeler, the new FCC Commissioner who began his job in November.

As soon as Wheeler came into office, he also announced the hiring of former Ambassador Philip Verveer as his senior counselor. A records request reveals that Verveer also worked for Comcast in the last year. In addition, he was retained by two industry groups that have worked to block net neutrality, the Wireless Association (CTIA) and the National Cable and Telecommunications Association.

In February, Matthew DelNero was brought into the agency to work specifically on net neutrality. DelNero has previously worked as an attorney for TDS Telecom, an Internet service provider that has lobbied on net neutrality, according to filings.

The list goes on — Fang is a hell of a researcher. And don’t forget this, about Obama-appointed FCC chief Tom Wheeler himself — he’s a former lobbyist connected to the telecom industry. Is the deck stacked? Is the pope named Francis? And what can Obama’s reason be for appointing him? (Hint: Think Library. It’s Legacy season after all. Just saying.)

There’s a ton more in Fang’s article; please do read.

Obama’s latest assault on democracy – undermining Net Neutrality

Next let’s consider Yves Smith and Bill Moyers on how this upcoming decision, almost certainly to abandon net neutrality, undermines democracy itself. First Smith:

“Net neutrality” is one of those brilliant coinages, like chained CPI, with a technocratic sheen designed to deter ordinary citizens from taking interest in policy proposals of fundamental importance to them.

Money man via Shutterstock

Money man via Shutterstock

Bill Moyers interviews David Carr of the New York Times and Susan Crawford, a visiting professor at Harvard Law School, about the how the biggest service providers like Comcast and Verizon have been pushing hard to balkanize the Internet by creating more stratified service tiers based on speed of access. This change is anticipated to hurt both lower income consumers and specialized websites, like not-for-profits, cultural and scientific sites, and…independent blogs.

So who did Obama put in charge of the FCC? Tom Wheeler, a former cable lobbyist. And of course, Wheeler hand-waves and professes that he just can’t oppose those powerful operators [against whom] he lost in court. Susan Crawford debunks that idea:

BILL MOYERS: And Tom Wheeler says that, look, the FCC’s tried twice to rewrite the rules of Net neutrality. And the appeals court, federal appeals court, has turned thumbs down twice. He’s saying, I’m only doing what I can do to write rules that are consistent with what the court has said.

SUSAN CRAWFORD: What’s not right about that is that he can do something. The FCC has tried to simultaneously deregulate by not labeling these guys as utilities. And yet, adopt Net neutrality rules. All he has to do is relabel these services as utility services. And then he stands on firm legal footing. He can forebear from any details of those rules. He doesn’t want to apply. The courts have struck this down because it’s incoherent. That’s the problem. If he marches forward on a clear legal path, he’ll be fine. But he wants to avoid World War III on the cable institutions.

So the real issue isn’t that public interest couldn’t prevail but that the Administration isn’t about to declare war on communication providers. And this almost-certain death net neutrality isn’t bad just in terms of diversity of content and democratic processes, it’s also bad for the health of the Web as system.

Here’s that Moyers interview. Do watch; it’s typically informative and clear:

There’s much to like here. Be sure to watch, at 20:00, Moyers comment on Obama’s 2008 full-throated support for net neutrality. Obama-then:

“I will take a back seat to no one in my commitment to net neutrality.”

You remember 2008; that was the year he wanted something from you. Seems he’d say just anything back then to get it. Obama-now just shoves cable lobbyist Tom Wheeler at us as Internet boss.

You know, if you had a billion dollars and a president with eyes on his Clintonian legacy, you could buy some people-friendly stuff, stuff actual people wanted. Your money would offset their money. It’s just like democracy, except you have to pony up to get it.

Side note: I wouldn’t count on that legacy as having a known-good result, Mr. President. You’re the one with the last clear chance to help us go Zero Carbon, and you’re blowing it (totally). When the climate storms knock us out of our homes and our insurance policies, your name will come up … early and often. Just saying.


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Gaius Publius is a professional writer living on the West Coast of the United States.

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