After the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) five member board voted along party lines to roll back Net Neutrality regulations last month, it wasn’t surprising to see some major Internet Service Providers (ISPs) trot out rate increases soon afterward. The new regulatory structure doesn’t take effect until 60 days after it is published in the Federal Register, which may take a few more weeks while the FCC completes final edits to the paperwork, but companies like Comcast just couldn’t wait. Meanwhile, in another predictable outcome of the end of Net Neutrality, over 20 states have started instituting their own rules in an effort to adhere to the old guidelines, while also suing the FCC to prevent it from trying to impose its new rules within each state.
This comes down to regulating interstate commerce in the form of communications companies, which is the only reason for federal agencies such as the FCC to exist. It will all have to be sorted out in the courts, and that could take years and many millions of taxpayer dollars, all because FCC Chairman Ajit Pai turned a deaf ear to the majority of Americans while he listened very closely to his corporate masters, such as at Verizon, where he worked as a corporate lawyer before being appointed to the FCC by President Barack Obama, at the behest of Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY).
“Reinstate Net Neutrality” sign at the January 20, 2018, Women’s March in downtown Los Angeles, California. Photo by Cory Doctorow.
There have been noises from Congress about legislating Net Neutrality, or a semblance of it, once and for all, thereby stripping the FCC of its bouncing ball regulations. Even if one of these measures manages to squeak by with enough votes in Congress, it will then cross the whistle-clean desk of Supreme Leader, who after all is the one who elevated Ajit Pai from FCC board member to chairman, most likely with the express purpose of encouraging him to gut Net Neutrality for the benefit of corporate giants. Supreme Leader will veto any legislation that undercuts his man at the FCC, and there will not be enough votes in Congress to override his veto, since that would require the votes of two thirds of the members.
In that case, it appears everyone will have to get used to paying through the nose for broadband internet service in areas of the country where there are only one or two providers, which is to say most areas. Consumers could pay less in a tiered system for service at the speed of dial-up, which is what the FCC has opened the door to now. Instead of being regulated like utilities, which must provide similar service to all consumers universally, the ISPs will be regulated like cable television companies, a business some of them have also been in for years.
The problem vexing consumers is that they usually have few choices for providers of these services, although they have slightly more choices than they do when it comes to their electric service. Still, in a market with limited competition, the advantage lies entirely with the unregulated company that is unfettered to charge whatever it can squeeze from captive consumers. Take it or leave it.
“Wildflowers”, the title song of Tom Petty’s (1950-2017) solo album from 1994.
The last area where ISP giants are working to complete their cornering of the market is in the contest over municipal broadband services, which are usually public/private partnerships between municipalities and smaller ISPs, where the municipality provides some infrastructure and subsidies, and the private company provides the hardware, operations, and maintenance. Municipal broadband often provides better service and better rates to consumers than they can get from the big companies, and is likely to provide service to poor and rural consumers who otherwise would have no service options. No wonder the big companies are intensively lobbying state and local officials to choke off municipal broadband. It appears their greed compels them to throttle competition and now, at their discretion, some services to their customers.
When it comes to net neutrality analogies, many people opt for the internet superhighway one where there may be fast lanes and slow lanes or, on a content neutral internet, all lanes are equal. Since it’s hard to bring in the gatekeepers who set the rules for the internet on that kind of analogy, it might be easier to think of net neutrality or non-neutrality as related to a toll plaza, where the gatekeepers, such as AT&T, Verizon, or Comcast, charge different amounts and cause varying delays to the vehicles attempting to pass through their gates.
On a net neutral superhighway, the gatekeepers at the toll plaza charge roughly the same amount to every vehicle and pass them all through with equal alacrity. On an internet superhighway that is not neutral and grants wide discretion to the gatekeepers at the toll plaza, toll charges vary a great deal from vehicle to vehicle, and the gatekeepers might also hold up certain vehicles, making them late to their destination.
The Great Belt Fixed Link toll plaza in Denmark. Different colored lights indicate different payment methods. Photo by heb.
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, after going through the motions of a public comment period through the summer on his proposed, Orwellian-named “Restoring Internet Freedom” gutting of the 2015 net neutrality rules, announced today that the FCC board of three Republicans and two Democrats will vote on rules changes on December 14. The fix is in, as it has been since early this year when Mr. Pai expressed his intention to overturn the 2015 rules, and there is little doubt how the majority will vote on December 14. It is still possible between now and then to bring enough public pressure to bear on Congress for that body to influence either the FCC board vote, which is not likely, or put in motion legislation to override FCC rules on rescinding net neutrality, which is the more likely outcome, if there is to be a positive one at all for neutrality advocates.
Regulation of internet access is too vital to leave up to the unelected five member board of a regulatory commission. The current FCC board has also recently demonstrated its irresponsibility to the country at large when it did away with rules preventing monopolization of local media markets by a single company, recklessly opening the gates to allow Sinclair Broadcasting to consolidate its control across the country.
In the 1974 film Blazing Saddles, directed by Mel Brooks, the citizens of Rock Ridge set up a toll booth to slow down the bad guys coming to destroy their town. Warning: foul language.
Congress could put an end to FCC favoritism toward big business by passing legislation, instead of allowing the FCC board to vote on rules after the formality of a meaningless public comment period, since the board Republicans will almost certainly vote against net neutrality despite the majority of public comments in favor of it. Congress is also beholden to big business, but at least it retains some ability to bend to the public will. As it stands now, after the December 14 vote the new rules will likely get challenged in court, and the legal struggle will eat up years, and all the while the internet gatekeepers will make fortunes extorting internet users who need to pass their toll booths.
Ajit Pai, Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), requires confirmation by the Senate as a board member before the end of the year to continue with the agency. If he is not confirmed for another four year term and is removed from office, the current president will most likely replace him with another Republican and advance the nomination of that person or another of the board’s two Republican members to the chairmanship. In the end, getting rid of Chairman Pai may not alter the current course of the FCC toward revoking Net Neutrality rules and allowing the merger of the Sinclair Broadcast Group with Tribune Media, but his removal does offer the opportunity to change course, however slim that may be.
Since his advancement to the chairmanship at the beginning of the year, Mr. Pai has worked to dismantle Net Neutrality under the Orwellian rubric “Restoring Internet Freedom”. The public comment period on the proposed rule change closed at the end of August, and now everyone awaits the decision of the five member board, three Republicans and two Democrats. It’s difficult to say what may be taking so long, considering that Mr. Pai has the votes, and by his actions earlier in the summer it appeared the fix was in anyway. Perhaps he’s having a hard time drafting the new regulations and lowering the bar enough to reflect proper deference to the major players like Comcast.
In the 1972 film Cabaret, Liza Minnelli and Joel Grey sing “Money, Money”.
The other major issue on Chairman Pai’s agenda is the merger of Sinclair with Tribune Media, which he favors. To advance his position for taking away regulations that treat Internet Service Providers as common carriers and therefore subjects them to rules of Net Neutrality, Mr. Pai uses language about protecting the consumer and getting the government out of the way of innovation, yet when it comes to allowing one enormous broadcast company, Sinclair, to become even larger and therefore monopolize some smaller media markets around the country, he suddenly and conveniently forgets his previous arguments. Monopolies have historically neither looked out for consumers in any way other than to take their money, nor have they had any incentive to innovate in any way other than how to take even more money.
The comments from the public in favor of keeping Net Neutrality regulations in place have outstripped the comments against, and to the limited extent the public has been paying attention to the Sinclair/Tribune merger, most are against it. Will the FCC, and in particular Chairman Pai, listen to the public or to corporate interests? It’s not hard to imagine the answer to that question if you subscribe to the wisdom of the comedian Lily Tomlin, who said “No matter how cynical I get, I can’t keep up.” Be that as it may, the public retains the option through Congress to say to Mr. Pai “You’re fired!”
“My, What Big Ears You Have”, a 1967 episode of the sitcom Bewitched, with Dick York as the beleaguered Darrin Stephens, whose mother-in-law has cast a spell on him that causes his ears to grow every time he lies.
This past Wednesday, July 12, many internet companies and net neutrality advocacy groups participated in a “Day of Action to Save Net Neutrality”. They were attempting to influence Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Ajit Pai and his two fellow commissioners during the public comment period on reversing the 2015 FCC net neutrality rules, or as Chairman Pai would have it, “Restoring Internet Freedom”.
2017 caricature of Ajit Pai by DonkeyHotey.
The public comment period is open until mid-August and is all well and good, but based on Chairman Pai’s previous comments as well as recent remarks, the entire thing is merely a charade to satisfy bureaucratic regulations. After the public comment period is over, Chairman Pai and the other Republican on the Commission’s board will vote to roll back net neutrality and deal with the consequences in court over the next few years. The FCC board has space for five commissioners, but currently there are only three, two Republicans and one Democrat. [Editor’s note: For an accessible version of the Wikipedia page about the FCC, click here; the amount of commissioners listed on the page may have changed since this post was written.]
A fantasy scene from the 1983 film A Christmas Story, with Peter Billingsley as Ralphie, and Tedde Moore as his teacher, Miss Shields.
The recent remarks from Chairman Pai that make a mockery of the public comment period have to do with his off-hand dismissal of the sheer number of genuine letters, calls, and emails in favor of net neutrality on the grounds that numbers will not sway him, only the content as he judges it. Oh. In that case, he may be judging these comments, or compositions, based on grammar, originality, penmanship, and interesting presentation. Please have them all on his desk by mid-August, as late comments will be marked down for tardiness.
Doris Day sings the theme song from her 1958 film co-starring Clark Gable.
Mr. Pai, formerly a lawyer for Verizon, has not shown as much critical judgment of the anti net neutrality comments the FCC has received, many of them astroturfed. Those comments must have been from the “D” students, and Mr. Pai, in the interest of fairness to everybody, but particularly to them, has decided to overlook their faults and boost their grades at least to “C”. The smarty pants crowd will take what marks Mr. Pai gives them in the interest of Restoring Internet Freedom to Verizon, Comcast, CenturyLink, AT&T, and other mega-millions Internet Service Providers (ISP). There’s the level playing field everyone likes to believe in, and then there’s the reality of the playing field groundskeepers have groomed to suit the home team. To get all these mixed metaphors to agree, think of the grading curve fix which benefits major sport athletes in school. Verizon? A+!
“Better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.” ― the Rev. William L. Watkinson*(1838-1925)
The nonprofit organization Fight for the Future has set up a website called Comcastroturf which allows people to check if their name has been used surreptitiously to file anti net neutrality comments with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The FCC had recently opened up a public comment period in anticipation of rolling back net neutrality regulations, and within a short time they were inundated with anti net neutrality comments which appeared to be generated by Internet Service Provider (ISP) astroturfers from hijacked subscriber lists. Comcast threatened Fight for the Future with a lawsuit, from which they have since backed down after it appeared obvious even to them that it was a tone deaf public relations debacle. They blamed the company they outsource their brand defenses to for excessive vigilance.
Let there be light; photo by Flickr user Arup Malakar, taken in the Kamakhya Temple, a shakti temple on the Nilachal Hill in the western part of Guwahati city in Assam, India.
It’s clear from new FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s remarks on net neutrality that he does not support the FCC net neutrality regulations adopted in 2015. Since the rest of the now Republican controlled board of commissioners will most likely go along with him when they vote on the regulations in September, the public comment period appears to be a mere formality. That apparently hasn’t deterred the ISP industry from feeling the need to generate a phony campaign to support the anti net neutrality commissioners. Perhaps they were concerned about the pro net neutrality campaign of John Oliver. Now Comcast and other industry giants have egg on their faces, and Chairman Pai has not escaped squeaky clean either, as he has declined to question the validity of the astroturfed comments, while distracting the attention of the public by complaining about mean tweets.
There are customers of Comcast who complain endlessly about the company’s high prices and lackluster, even adversarial, customer service, yet those customers do little or nothing to explore alternatives to Comcast. They sit grumbling in the dark and won’t lift a finger to light a candle. Such people do a disservice to themselves, but since they seem to be satisfied with that in a masochistic way, the rest of us are left having to listen to their grousing while they do nothing to improve their situation. That shouldn’t be a problem for those of us who can get out of earshot, though in the broader perspective it is those dissatisfied but immovable customers of Comcast who grant the company its monopolistic power in the marketplace, and that’s a problem for everyone because it limits affordable options as smaller companies struggle to establish themselves when confronting the obstacles thrown at them by industry giants and the legislators and regulators they have in their pockets.
Comcast and companies like it might behave better if they started experiencing mass defections. Comcast has been losing subscription television customers, while increasing broadband customers. Cord cutting does not affect Comcast’s bottom line if the customers doing so are merely moving their dollars from one part of the service to another. City dwellers and suburbanites have more options for internet service than people in the countryside, and so they have fewer excuses for continuing with Comcast even while they dislike the company intensely. Ultimately the choice comes down to a decision about what to give up, at least in the short term. Even without streaming video, life goes on. For the majority of the Earth’s inhabitants, the whining of some Americans about how to get along without access to each and every National Football League (NFL) game over either the internet or subscription TV, or the latest “must see” TV series, must appear ingloriously obtuse and selfish. These companies have too much power because we have given it to them. It’s like being abused in a relationship and not working to free yourself because you can’t imagine life any other way. Who knows, life untethered from the Comcast umbilical cord could be better than you think.
Pigeon Point Lighthouse, south of San Francisco, California; photo by Diedresm.
Anti-Monsanto stencil “Monsanto – Siembra Muerte” in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 2013 reads in English “Monsanto – Seeds of Death”; photo by JanManu. Monsanto’s policies and practices have engendered large scale protests in Argentina, as well as elsewhere around the world. Strangely, in the United States, the land where Freedom of the Press is enshrined in the First Amendment to the Constitution, the mainstream media is largely silent about agribusiness misconduct. Test that yourself with an internet search.
Monsanto is not alone among companies in tasking their public relations people with promoting a positive image online in comments sections, forums, and social media. That’s a very good reason for taking such comments with a large grain of salt. It’s akin to what you may hear around the water cooler at work, only in this case one or more of your fellow gossips makes oddly stilted remarks in favor of the company way, as if speaking from a script. When one of those gossips dons a white laboratory coat and purports to speak with scientific authority on the subject at hand, the discussion moves magically from around the water cooler to around the executive conference table. There the discussion is not so much about influencing public opinion as it is about setting the parameters for debate and ultimately public policy.
Robert Morse learns under the tutelage of mail room boss Sammy Smith as they sing “The Company Way” in the 1967 movie of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.
However, just because a shill wears a lab coat and has a list of academic degrees behind his or her name does not make that person any less of a shill than the one who makes a few dollars trolling comments sections on behalf of a corporation. The scientific high priest type of shill is morally worse because he or she exploits the respect and gullibility of the general public when hearing pronouncements from them. Not all of the science shills know what they do, of course, because they may be true believers. The others, who know what they do, but go on anyway because of greed and ambition, deserve no leeway from the public or their peers, and more likely deserve condemnation. Jesus knew as much when He denounced the Pharisees.
A scene from the 1970 movie Little Big Man, with Dustin Hoffman and Martin Balsam. Snake Oil Salesmen and their Shills by no means disappeared with the 19th Century.
For whatever topic you care to name that puts at risk the finances of large corporations – tobacco, climate change, Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) and the herbicides that accompany them – you can find a corporate funded think tank with outreach to a handful of friendly scientists and institutions who scramble to debunk legitimate research and hold back a growing avalanche of negative public opinion. The agribusiness funded Genetic Literacy Project has nothing good to say about U.S. Right to Know, an organization largely funded by the organic food industry. Similarly, U.S. Right to Know dismisses the science of the Genetic Literacy Project. The organic food industry in the United States has about 5% of the market and is steadily growing year after year. Organic foods are by definition non-GMO. You are free to make up your own mind about who to believe, of course, and it’s a good thing then that to help you decide, many sellers of non-GMO foods have begun labeling their products as such. This was after giant agribusinesses successfully lobbied the government to scuttle labeling of products that do contain GMO foods. The big corporations apparently don’t trust you with the facts and with making decisions for yourself based on those facts.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC)net neutrality rulings of 2015 are under attack from – surprise, surprise! – Ajit Pai, the former attorney for Verizon and new FCC chairman. Mr. Pai calls the rollback of Title II regulations “Restoring Internet Freedom”. It’s clear Mr. Pai has read and understood his Orwell. Part of the niceties involved in rolling back the Internet Service Provider (ISP) common carrier regulations of Title II that Mr. Pai and his Republican allies in Congress and the White House want to have happen are invitations for public comment on the FCC website. It turns out, however, that when the FCC isn’t complaining about John Oliver inciting his viewers to inundate the FCC website with comments in support of Title II, they are ignoring the questionable origin of comments against Title II from citizens whose identity may have been hijacked by the very companies they pay for monthly internet service, companies like Comcast, Verizon, and AT&T.
Astroturfing is nothing new in politics, but to ignore the obvious signs of astroturfing in a letter writing or email campaign to government regulators or congresspeople signifies a set agenda that is not to be swayed by emails or letters of varying opinions. The fix is in, in other words. It’s clear from FCC Chairman Pai’s previous public comments what his opinion is on Title II and net neutrality, and now that the FCC board has a Republican majority, his opinion is likely to become policy. It is hypocrisy then for the FCC to invite public comment and ignore for whatever reason the comments it’s board doesn’t want to hear, even though they are genuine, while accepting the clearly astroturfed comments originating from industry insiders.
Ajit V. Pai, new Chairman of the FCC.
Lewis Black in a concert in Amsterdam, The Netherlands, after the 2008 financial meltdown, comments on capitalism, greed, and how the United States government handled the crisis. In the end, there were no repercussions to the wealthy for the damage they inflicted on the working and middle class people who pay their way year after year. Warning: foul language.
Chairman Pai has remarked that in the 90 day public comment process, the FCC will not ” rely on hyberbolic statements about the end of the internet as we know it, and 140-character argle-bargle, but rather on the data.” Presumably the FCC chairman will then be ignoring the considerable amount of 140 character argle-bargle generated by his boss, the Argle-Bargler-in-Chief. Would that it were so. The reality is that the new FCC Chairman and the new President and the new Republican Congress appear to be in perfect agreement on rolling back Title II common carrier regulations for ISPs, and there’s little that ordinary citizens can do to stop them. Try John Oliver’s solution or the one from the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), and good luck to you, but in the future pay attention at the ballot box once every two to four years, and every day remember not to buy into the “fruit from your tree” delusion.
Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke with FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler in 2014.
Rural communities and small cities took a blow to their prospects for municipally provided broadband internet service on August 10th when the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati ruled against the Federal Communications Commission’s 2015 order to preempt state laws in North Carolina and Tennessee. Wilson, North Carolina, and Chattanooga, Tennessee, had petitioned the FCC to allow them to build municipal broadband networks and the FCC had acted under a provision of the 1996 Telecommunications Act directing it to remove barriers to broadband investment and competition. The Sixth Circuit Court ruled the FCC did not have the power to supersede state law.
19 states have laws hampering the ability of local governments to provide broadband service, with the corporate-funded American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) offering sample legislation to more states. As Michael Copps, a former FCC commissioner and now an advisor to Common Cause, put it “Let’s be clear: industry-backed state laws to block municipal broadband only exist because pliant legislators are listening to their Big Cable and Big Telecom paymasters.”
The FCC defines broadband as an upload speed of at least three megabits per second and a download speed of no less than 25 megabits per second, and maintains a map displaying the different types of service available around the country. Even in larger cities where broadband is more commonly available, however, consumers have few choices of internet service provider because for all practical purposes carriers such as Comcast operate as regional monopolies.
The possibility of building municipal broadband networks has been an option in areas of low population density where private internet service providers often display little interest in building out their network for what they see as small return on their investment. People in poorly served areas sometimes turn to satellite service, though it has drawbacks in the form of high latency speeds and throttling of service for users who have reached certain data caps. In the same areas, wireless service can be spotty, with generally low data caps at high cost.
It appears the debate over net neutrality and whether to treat broadband service as a utility may revive, and it will be up to Congress to either strengthen the FCC’s regulatory powers over the states and the industry or to enact legislation defining internet service providers as common carriers, something companies like AT&T and Verizon fought tooth and nail against during the last round of discussions in 2014.