Is the new FCC now building walls on the internet?
A flurry of actions late last week by the Trump Administration’s new regulators of national communications – the U.S. Federal Communications Commission – certainly make it seem as if roadblocks at least are set to go up on the information superhighway in America.
After pledging to dismantle Net Neutrality – adopted by the Obama Administration FCC in 2015 – new FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, a former lawyer for Verizon, issued a flurry of orders late Friday (Feb. 3) aimed at giving Big Telcom free reign to divide up the internet as it see fit, perhaps putting on hold a well-established program designed to provide internet service to impoverished Americans and other measures aimed at protecting internet consumers.
Net Neutrality is the phrase most commonly used to describe the U.S. policy guaranteeing fair and open internet access to all Americans.
In letters to the major corporate internet service providers (ISPs), Pai said the FCC will end its investigation into possible Net Neutrality rules violations by AT&T, Verizon, Comcast and T-Mobile through the companies’ so-called zero-rating data plans in which customers are offered unlimited data downloads – but only through the walled garden of their own systems.
On the surface, the zero-rating plans seem like a great deal for consumers but in reality closes the door on those consumers actually getting fair and open internet access.
“Today, the Wireless Telecommunications Bureau is closing its investigation into wireless carriers’ free-data offerings,” read Pai’s short statement. “These free-data plans have proven to be popular among consumers, particularly low-income Americans, and have enhanced competition in the wireless marketplace. Going forward, the Federal Communications Commission will not focus on denying Americans free data. Instead, we will concentrate on expanding broadband deployment and encouraging innovative service offerings.”
“With (Friday’s) action, Chairman Pai is undoing important work that promised to bring the benefits of broadband to low-income families, to put vertically integrated ISPs on notice against prioritizing their own content, and to send a message to broadcasters that covert consolidation won’t be tolerated,” answered back Matt Wood, policy director for the consumer protection organization Free Press. “With these strong-arm tactics, Chairman Pai is showing his true stripes. The public wants an FCC that helps people. Instead, it got one that does favors for the powerful corporations its chairman used to work for.
“Pai followed President Trump’s lead by issuing his own types of executive orders, which undermine the democratic process, strip consumers of safeguards and rob millions of the neediest families of the help they need to bridge the digital divide, Wood continued.”
Internet service for impoverished communities
Pai also, in a single stroke of a pen, promised to reconsider a long standing FCC program designed to provide telephone and internet service to impoverished communities across the nation.
Lifeline is a program started in 1985 to provide low-cost telephone service to communities and consumers unable to afford standard phone service. The program was expanded in 2016 to include broadband internet service in those same communities.
The lone holdover remaining on the FCC from the Obama Administration, Mignon Clyburn, countered her new chairman’s order with a terse statement:
“Today, the agency reverses course on providing more competition and consumer choice for Lifeline customers,” she said. “Rather than working to close the digital divide, this action widens the gap,” she said. “By eliminating the designations of nine entities to provide Lifeline broadband service, the Bureau has substantially undermined businesses who had begun relying on those designations. These providers include a minority-owned business, a provider enabling students to complete their homework online, and others serving Tribal lands.
She demanded the order be taken up and debated by the full FCC.
“I remain hopeful, however, that this is not the final answer and that the providers’ requests will remain pending after today’s action. I implore the Chairman and the Bureau to consider these designation requests expeditiously. #ConsumersFirst.”
Net Neutrality at risk
Given his prior statements it appears the FCC under Pai’s direction will work quick to dismantle Net Neutrality protections for online Americans. He said he intends to take a weed-whacker to Net Neutrality rules.
As a reminder, Net Neutrality is the phrase used to describe an internet to which all users have a fair and equal, if not necessarily free, access.
In the U.S. the concept is based on the FCC (and court) rulings which establish the internet as a public utility and, therefore, subject to government regulation just like other public utilities of electricity, water, telephone, interstate trucking and others.
Regulating the internet as a public utility has the overwhelming support of U.S. consumers and was backed by the Obama Administration and Democrats in the Congress.
A common carrier, as defined by the FCC, is any company or entity which provides a telecommunications service to the general public. A contract carrier, on the other hand, provides service to a select number of clients or customers. The Telecommunications Act of 1934 specifically classified the telephone companies, for example, as common carriers. (This may be shocking to some of you but the internet did not exist in 1934.)
Outside the telecommunications industry, airlines and bus companies are considered common carriers. Oil and natural gas pipelines are common carriers. Public utilities – electrical companies and water companies – are common carriers.
Common carriers are those companies and entities which provide a service for the common benefit of the general public. They certainly are entitled to earn revenue in return for their service but the U.S. government regulates how much common carriers can charge the public as a safeguard against price gouging or other public exploitation. It’s a sound, decent, fair system.
When President Obama finally issued in 2014 his position on net neutrality he said exactly what many advocates for a fair and open internet in the U.S. have been advocating for years: ISPs should be classified as common carriers.
“Simply put: No service should be stuck in a ‘slow lane’ because it does not pay a fee,” said the President at the time. “That kind of gate keeping would undermine the level playing field essential to the Internet’s growth.”
The major ISPs have long fought for the opportunity to charge higher prices for higher Internet speeds; to, in essence, create fast lanes and set up tolls booths if consumers want better internet service. The U.S. is the only nation in the world where such a debate is even being considered. The government of most of the world’s nations long ago stepped in to require ISPs to provide Internet at the fastest speeds available. (Brazil adopted an Internet Bill of Rights, guaranteeing every citizen free and unfettered access to the internet – as well as the right to data privacy.)
In fact and simple best-interests-of-all-internet-users, treating the ISPs as common carrier is the only way to ensure the internet using public won’t be exploited and Internet fast lanes won’t be created for the rich at the expense of the public and the greater good. The Internet is a public utility.