When it comes to the people’s will, the FCC have never been good listeners. The Trump FCC wants to kill subsidies for poor people to pay phone and internet bills, and remove caps on how much telecoms can charge the families of prisoners to receive phone calls. Its FCC chair used to represent a prison phone company. And they intend to kill network neutrality.
Early this week former Verizon lobbyist and current FCC chairman Ajit Pai unveiled the details of the Trump administration’s plan to scrap the network neutrality rules which prevent telecoms from selectively blocking or throttling traffic, from segregating the internet into slow and fast lanes to favor or penalize customers and content providers according to the whims of corporate “business logic.”
Net neutrality is the legal notion that the internet should be available to all content, to all technologies, to all messages and to all people, and that nobody has the right to restrict who can send, receive or connect to it. The concept of network neutrality emerged out of almost a century of peoples struggle against the greedy monopoly interests that controlled telephone networks in the US. Phone companies – originally there was only one – THE phone company, which prohibited devices manufactured by others to connect to phone networks, and refused to build infrastructure out to small towns, rural and poorer urban areas. When neighborhoods and rural communities organized their own phone companies, frequently as cooperatives, the phone company purchased judges, governors, members of congress and state legislatures to outlaw, prohibit, close them down or confiscate them, and preserve monopoly over communications networks.
It was out of these 19th and early 20th century struggles against corporate interests that the concept emerged of phone service, like water, gas and electricity as a public utility to which everyone rich or poor, rural or urban possessed an inherent right, which would be guaranteed by regulation in the public interest. When the internet took off in the early 1990s, the only way to connect to it was through the existing phone networks. So the internet was initially regulated by the same regime which governed phone service.
Greedy corporations whined and chafed and protested. Internet companies demanded to do what phone companies did (They often WERE the phone companies!) and charge higher fees for long distance as opposed to local internet. They wanted to charge the senders and the recipients of email. They wanted to restrict what kinds of devices connected to “their” internet, and what software was deployed over it. And most of all internet companies insisted that if they were denied the right to privilege their own content and slow down or block that of competitors and those they wanted to shake down, the sacred principles of the free market would be violated and they wouldn’t make any money.
For most of the 1990s, there was a Democrat in the White House, Bill Clinton. Like Barack Obama Clinton was first elected with a thumping majority in the House and Senate which he lost after only two years by demobilizing his own base and moving sharply to the right. Clinton’s “reinventing government” initiative required every state, county and local government unit to list parts of their own functions that could be privatized, and begin putting them out to bid. Conceiving, engineering and building the internet was an exclusive project of the federal government, costing tens of billions of taxpayer dollars and employing thousands of scientists, engineers and construction workers on direct federal payrolls and contracts to design, test and build its backbone which was ready for prime time by the early 1990s.
The same crew of neoliberal corporate operatives who wrote and rammed through NAFTA, including Rahm Emanuel and Bill Daley of the Chicago Daley dynasty crafted the Telecommunications Acts of 1995 and 1996. They privatized the internet, giving away the American people’s massive public investment to a handful of greedy telecommunications corporations for pennies on the dollar. Privatization is always theft, and in this case it set the stage for overturning the hard won legal protections the public had won in previous decades fighting for public access to phone networks.
Industry observers knew by the late 1990s that expansion of fast internet access would only be possible over existing and new cable networks, not the existing telephone networks, and began tailoring their legal objections to regulation in the public interest accordingly. They began claiming that since “theirs” was increasingly not a wired phone network the public interest regulations like network neutrality didn’t apply to them. By the last part of Georgie W. Bush’s administration they’d purchased enough FCC officials, judges, federal and state legislators, including most of the Congressional Black Caucus, to make their argument the law of the land. Colin Powell’s son, also a telecom lobbyist was the FCC chair, and his proposals were substantially the same as those on the table today.
But it wasn’t a public argument, at least not at first. Telecoms, under the same ownership as newspapers, cable and broadcast media had no interest whatsoever in letting the public know that the handful of corporation which owned most of the book publishing, broadcast media, wireless, phone and cable network were aiming for dictatorial power over the internet too. Consequently there were practically NO stories in corporate news media on the corporate power grab. Black Agenda Report, in three or four dozens of articles in 2006, 2007 and 2008 was one of the outlets which explained again and again what was at stake for minority communities, for everyone if the telecoms were permitted to do away with network neutrality. Despite the mainstream news blackout on the issue, perserving network neutrality and the relative freedom of the internet became the cause not only of the left and the Democratic party’s mass base, but the cause of millions of ordinary Americans who otherwise supported Republicans.
The number of public comments filed in the period leading up to the Bush era FCC meeting which would have eliminated network neutrality shattered all previous records. So many Republican members of Congress were swamped with such an unprecedented volume of faxes, phone calls and emails from their own base that the White House and Congressional leaders feared an open revolt and possible action to make network neutrality the law of the land, even in a Republican ruled Congress. The Bush White House allowed FCC Chairman Powell to withdraw his proposal.
Sensing the opportunity, candidate Barack Obama declared that he “would take a back seat to no one” when it came to protecting network neutrality. But this was the same Barack Obama who said he’d rein in the oil companies, raise the minimum wage, pass a law to make it possible for people to organize unions and maybe put on some comfortable shoes and walk a picket line. He simply lied. By the 2008 Democratic convention Obama was declaring himself the candidate of “clean coal.” In his first month as president he froze the wages of federal workers. He took extraordinary measures to protect BP after the Deepwater Horizon disaster and handed out hundreds of underwater fracking permits. He never mentioned the minimum wage till he ran again in 2012 and has yet to utter a word about that union card check bill. And his FCC chairs the first six years of his presidency did nothing to advance the cause of network neutrality or protect communities from digital redlining and price gouging.
In his last two years President Obama finally instructed a new FCC chief, who had taken part in writing the disastrous Telecommunications Acts of 1995 and 1996 to come up with regulations protecting network neutrality. But unlike laws passed by Congress, administrative regulations are easily undone by the next administration. On banking, the military budget and other matters the Obama crew was too lazy, too risk averse and too deep in the corporate pocket themselves to fight for and lock down network neutrality while they had congressional majorities and massive public support. Somebody should go ask Ta Nehisi Coates why they didn’t address these matters “when they were in power.”
So here we are, with a new president, the same news blackout, and the same corporate power grab that was tried nine and ten years ago. Trump’s FCC intends to overturn the vaunted Obama protections with a majority vote and a stroke of a pen on December 14.
This ain’t 2007-2008, the end of a fatally weakened and discredited Republican White House and congressional regime in which even public knowledge of the power grab was a surprise. Democratic oriented corporate media, and a good part of the Democrats’ mass base are consumed with Russiagate and the fake “resistance,” and not interested in stirring people up against corporate rule. Black Democrats on both the federal and state levels have been almost uniquely unhelpful, since telecom corporations used to give them money when few other megacorporations would. Same with groups like the NAACP and Urban League, and Rainbow PUSH> Until now, the right leaning public seems may be too absorbed in the polarizing racist theatrics of Big Cheeto in the White House to pay attention to network neutrality.
Telecom shills and operatives have stepped up their game too. The previous record for public comments was 3.2 million. This time there were 22 million comments, many of them with names and email addresses harvested from known data breaches. The NY state attorney general has requested the FCC provide logs that might help investigate the fake pro-corporate comments but the FCC is not listening.
Relief from the federal courts is possible, says FreePress.Net staffer Joe Torres. “You make a new rule, you repeal an old one you’re required to justify it, and the justifications offered by this FCC, our lawyers tell us, are surprisingly weak… There’s litigation in progress over the previous rules, where phone companies opposed the LifeLine program which funds phone and internet services to some of those who cannot afford them, and over rules that limit how much companies can charge for intrastate phone calls from prisons. The Trump FCC has refused to defend these policies in court...
“We’re also energized because in the last 24 hours there have been 75,000 phone calls to members of Congress opposing these new rules. We believe many of them are coming from people put in motion by places like Reddit, which lean rightward not leftward. So we’re far from dead yet. We’ll be fighting to make our voices heard, whether they want to listen or not.”
Want to see if your name and address were used to write a fake email to the FCC? Click here.
On December 7, network neutrality advocates will be protesting at Verizon stores nationwide. Click here to find one near you, or to host one.
Bruce Dixon is managing editor at Black Agenda Report and a state committee member of the GA Green Party, which unlike Democrats and Republicans unequivocally supports network neutrality. He lives and works in Marietta GA and can be reached via email at bruce.dixon(at)blackagendareport.com.