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Art Brodsky

Art Brodsky

Posted: May 14, 2010 08:23 AM

The Big Lie isn't called the Big Lie for nothing. It's put before the public by organizations with comfy-sounding names, repeated endlessly in ads and columns and blog posts and tweets by groups and politicians -- many of whom receive support from those the Big Lie favors. Here's the current case in point: The government wants to takeover/control/regulate the Internet.

Who was responsible for this? Start with Americans for Prosperity. It's hard to quibble with a name for a group like "Americans for Prosperity." After all, who doesn't want Americans to be prosperous? Therefore, it's somewhat curious that a group that purports to have our well-being at heart is taking on the one institution that has been the greatest creator of wealth we have ever seen -- the Internet.

To be fair, the group is itself fairly prosperous. It announced the other day that it will spend the equivalent of a small public-interest group's budget, $1.4 million, to buy TV ads in Pennsylvania, Hawaii, the Washington, D.C. area and on national cable. But then AFP has all the right connections - big-time Republican lobbyist Grover Norquist, lots of conservative and corporate funding from the Koch family, a sister relationship with former House Majority Leader Dick Armey's Freedom Works and of course support from AT&T. Yes, the former Citizens for a Sound Economy is doing pretty, pretty well financially.

Factually, however, AFP is pretty much bankrupt. As we've learned, bankruptcy loves company, so AFP is not the only one. There are many people out there who can't recognize what it is the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) wants to do to protect the Internet, and, more crucially, what it is that the FCC is actually doing.

The list of misbegotten souls includes many prominent conservative commentators. As well as includes the top Republicans in the House, Rep. John Boehner of Ohio and Eric Cantor of Virginia, the top Republican on the Communications Subcommittee, who wrote to the FCC protesting reclassification. Rep. Cliff Stearns of Florida has introduced legislation to stop the reclassification, and other Commerce Committee Republicans who voiced their opposition at a hearing on Thursday.

Undoubtedly some conservative Democrats will be added to the list of the misinformed in the coming weeks as the forces which want to smack down the FCC spread even more of their money around town and impress legislators, in Washington and around the country, in order to spread what are essentially unfounded and inaccurate characterizations about what the FCC is doing. Even now, AT&T is working Capitol Hill searching for signatures from rural Blue Dog members and minority members from the Congressional Black Caucus. They signed a letter last year opposing Net Neutrality as well.

The secret to the Big Lie, of course, is that if you repeat it sufficient times people will be accustomed to it and take it for truth. It will develop a ring of "truthiness," to use the Stephen Colbert formulation.

In this case, the Big Lie is that the FCC wants to "regulate the Internet." Sound familiar? Everyone is singing from the same sheet. The AFP's plea is to "Help Stop Washington's Takeover of the Internet." Glenn Beck talks about the FCC taking over every aspect of the Internet. The Wall Street Journal said the FCC wants to "regulate the Web."

Boehner accused the FCC of a "government takeover of the Internet. Boehner and Cantor followed that up with a May 12 letter to President Obama that complained about "your administration's plan for federal regulation of the Internet. At a House subcommittee hearing May 13, Republicans complained about the "power grab" over the Internet.

This would be tiresome and silly if it weren't so serious, if there weren't some serious money behind it and if we weren't going to be subjected to this nonsense nonstop for the next few weeks, if not months.

Let's see what FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski's Third Way policy to achieve a more open Internet really does. First, it gives the FCC back the jurisdiction it once had over Internet access (aka broadband) services. While some posit this action to reassert jurisdiction as a "radical" move, it has only been five years since a previous FCC gave away the firm legal authority it should have kept. The FCC has had authority over all types of services since 1934, from simple telephone lines to the most sophisticated data lines that have evolved. Internet access is no different. It is the connection between your house and the Internet. It is a simple telecommunications service connecting you from Point A to Point B. It's the kind of thing the FCC has authority over when the traffic moves slowly, and is no different if the traffic moves along a little quicker. As of right now, the FCC has no jurisdiction over high-speed Internet access (aka broadband) because of the April 6 decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C. The court said that the way the FCC wanted to assert its authority, through a vaguely worded part of the communications law, wasn't proper. So the FCC will go back to the authority it once had. That's not radical. It's practical and it's legal.

Second, without that authority, universal service disappears, as do lots of other broadband-related programs. Those rural legislators being targeted by AT&T might take note. Their constituents will suffer if the FCC doesn't go through with its plan -- not that logic ever had much bearing when a big-money company came to call.

Third, without that authority there would be no authority to examine and remedy consumer complaints. Remember that Comcast was throttling back one particular application being used by its customers? The FCC could take the complaint and tell Comcast to knock it off. If that same thing happened today, no one could stop Comcast from the throttling. In addition, anything the FCC wanted to do to protect consumer privacy, or in cybersecurity access by the disabled community to service would be jeopardized without proper legal authority.

Finally, the FCC could keep the telephone and cable companies from playing favorites, from making deals to slow down one Web site or service at the expense of another.

Where in there is anything about government taking over the Internet? Nowhere. Where in there is anything about regulating the Internet? Nowhere. Where in there is anything about government control over the Internet? Nowhere.

But wait. There's more. Not content with one false pretense, the phone and cable companies and their front groups want to compound the confusion by saying that if the FCC regulates/takeover/controls the Internet, then there will be "reduced broadband investment, less economic stimulation, and fewer jobs," as the letter AT&T is circulating forecast.

In other words, do it our way and nobody gets hurt. That's classic telephone company bullying, the things they have been doing for years. And it's nonsense. Start with the jobs. In 2008, AT&T said it would lay off 12,000 workers in 2009. That's smack dab in the middle of the regulatory environment AT&T wanted. Verizon, meantime, was cutting 16,000 jobs last year. It bought Alltel and started laying off workers. What does that have to do with an open Internet? Nothing.

You want economic stimulation? A free, open and creative Internet is what produces the greatest economic stimulation. And finally, investment. In days gone by, state regulators could order telephone companies to build out their networks. Cable companies some times had that requirement under franchising agreements. Now, that power doesn't exist in telephone land and rarely in cable. No one can force big companies to invest. Even the growth in network traffic can't do it. They will invest as they want to, depending on economic conditions and the readings from the entrails of slaughtered chickens. Free Press did an admirable report documenting the vagaries of telecom investment - and nothing in it shows any relationship to regulation. Verizon capped its FIOS residential fiber build-out at half of its customer base (about 18 million homes), just because it wanted to. No regulatory pressure was needed.

Fred Wilson, one of the country's premier venture capitalists, supports the FCC. He wrote, "And without these rules, investors like me who invest in the 'open internet' will not be able to invest anymore. So you can choose between telcos saying they won't be able to invest under one set of rules vs VCs who say they won't be able to invest under another set of rules. But if you look at history, you can see that telcos have invested very heavily in their networks while under the threat of net neutrality regulation or even in instances when they were under direct net neutrality regulation. The argument is specious and their actions have show that."

However, there is a dirty secret lurking here that Boehner and Cantor and Beck and Norquist and all the others don't want you to know. There are people who support government taking over the Internet. Who? Start with Tom Tauke, Verizon's chief lobbyist.

And then there's Stearns, the Republican lawmaker who faithfully defends big industry. In his bill, Stearns specifically gives the FCC the authority to regulate "service providers, application providers, and content providers."

Let's hear the screams from AFP, Beck, AT&T and the rest now.

The silence is golden.

 

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