Every time a Congressional Committee has a hearing on the Comcast-NBC merger, the topic of regulating Internet access usually surfaces. The canard floated by those who don't want a free, neutral Internet is that their opponents are trying to "regulate the Internet." Today, Sen. John Ensign (R-NV) brought it up at a Commerce Committee hearing on the merger.
Nothing is farther from the truth. We want to regulate the access to the Internet, controlled tightly by the telephone and cable companies, but the only ones who want to regulate Web sites and online services are the telephone and cable companies. They complain that if they are to be regulated, then everyone else has to be also.
As a result, over the last couple of weeks, a fierce little debate has started to rage about how the United States should treat high-speed Internet access. A couple of weeks ago, the whole ecosystem surrounding the big telecom carriers got together to warn the Federal Communications Commission about really and truly regulating this crucial service. It is a fine object lesson.
While the whole letter was outrageous, there was one little part that particularly stood out for special mention, because it demonstrates the rhetorical trickery and intellectual dishonesty that unfortunately inhabits our little telecom world. As a matter of general principle it's not helpful to repeat the arguments of the opposition, but in this case the exposure is worth it. The topic, remember, is whether consumers should have any protection under law for what will soon be the fundamental service of our telecom network, much like voice service is today. The big telecom and cable companies, and their acolytes, of course don't want any regulation.
In their letter, the big companies wrote about one of the founders of some friends of our, the group Free Press. As you read the excerpt, remember that the "Title I" referred to is the general language in the law that gives the FCC some broad, if vague, authority. Comcast, the biggest member of the National Cable and Telecommunications Association (NCTA), one of the groups signing the letter, is challenging the FCC's Title I authority in court. If they win, that authority goes away. The "Title II" referred to is traditional, if flexible regulation, which would give the FCC authority to protect consumers from bad behavior, as Comcast exhibited when it throttled lawful content.
First, the big companies started with an introductory paragraph: "But just when regulatory certainty is most needed to keep the private-enterprise engine running in high gear, some parties advocate abandoning the current Title I model in favor of public-utility-type regulation under Title II. Robert McChesney, the co-founder of Free Press and a current member of its board, articulated that group's radical agenda in an interview with the Socialist Project:"
Let us deconstruct. Right away, you get the companies throwing out some quasi-patriotic red meat. They pair up "regulatory certainty" and "private-enteprise engine" with "public-utility-type regulation" and, horrors, the "radical agenda" as expressed in an interview with a Web site that includes the word "Socialist" in its title.
Another way of looking at this appalling parallel construction is to ask some questions. How can there be "regulatory certainty" when the biggest Internet Service Provider (ISP) in the country has taken these very FCC principles to court, and may yet win? Answer: There isn't. And you can bet that any time the FCC in the future wants to use its vague regulatory principles to regulate, (assuming the FCC has the authority) one or another of the Big Telecom Ecosphere will rush its lawyers off to the courthouse to challenge it.
And the high gear in which the "private enterprise engine" is supposedly running? Free Press has done some impressive economic work tracking telephone company spending on its network. Guess what? It goes up and it goes down, depending on company policy, not on regulatory policy. And spending on the network has gone down. Must have slipped a gear there.
As for "public-utility" regulation? They make that sound like a bad thing, when it doesn't have to be that bad. Of course, for the big telephone and cable companies, any regulation is bad, which is why they are playing that little shell game at the FCC - saying don't do that "public utility regulation" and challenging whether other regulation will apply. The companies know better. They know that the FCC has a lot of discretion of what to regulate and how to regulate it. They know this because they gamed the system to take advantage of the laxity. You can't avoid that entirely. But what you can avoid is a situation in which the FCC has no authority at all - the ultimate goal of Big Telecom.
And the "radical agenda"? Fact is, that until 2005, Internet access services were regulated the way they should have been, the way most telecom services had been for years. The "radical agenda" was the little switcheroo the FCC played, taking Internet access out of the direct authority of the Commission. Some of us want to return things to the way they were, and for that we're labeled radical. War Is Peace, you know?
Perhaps one could read into those words, forming a "radical agenda" that McChesney wants to take the Internet away from the companies which own the on-ramps, and, more horrors, have consumers use it for free. The last point is particularly poignant because it was former AT&T Chairman Ed Whitacre who famously said he didn't want companies like Google and Yahoo to "use my pipes (for) free." We're certain that the financial executives at Google and Yahoo!, looking at their monthly bills, will guarantee their networks are not free.
Then, they introduced this, cited as McChesney's "articulation." Notice all the ellipses in that citation, which should not be dignified by calling it a quote.
"What we want to have in the U.S. and in every society is an Internet that is not private property, but a public utility. We want an Internet where . . . you don't pay a penny to use. . . . In the realm of Internet service provision, the telephone and cable companies play a parasitic and negative role. They do nothing positive. . . . Our struggle [is] to make the Internet into a public utility[.]"
Now, let's take a look at the entire McChesney quote, freed from the bounds of Big Telecom ellipses:
"There are three overriding and connected issues that are central to media democracy activism in the United States. The first issue is the Internet. The battle for network neutrality is to prevent the Internet from being privatized by telephone and cable companies. Privatization would give them control over the Internet, would allow these firms to privilege some information flows over others. We want to keep the Internet open. What we want to have in the U.S. and in every society is an Internet that is not private property, but a public utility. We want an Internet where you don't have to have a password and that you don't pay a penny to use. It is your right to use the Internet. The benefits of a public Internet are numerous. It would end the digital divide, which remains a very serious problem in the U.S. and worldwide."
In the middle, which the dreaded ellipses eradicated, is a separate question. McChesney was asked: "What is the greatest obstacle to achieving network neutrality?" His reply:
"The political influence of telephone and cable companies, which are state created monopolies. The one thing these companies are good at is buying off and controlling politicians. That is their 'comparative advantage' over other firms. They are not any good at the actual business of telecommunications service provisioning. In the realm of Internet service provision, the telephone and cable companies play a parasitic and negative role. They do nothing positive. Their future is predicated on their ability to privatize the Internet and force people to use their version of it and pay an exorbitant highway robbery prices for that use. This applies to cell phones companies as well. All of these firms rank in the bottom five of the most hated industries in the country, with the banks and other predatory lenders. Their power rests upon their ability to successfully buy off politicians, just like the banks and predatory lenders. Our struggle to make the Internet into a public utility conflicts with the interests of telephone and cable firms. So it is a tough fight, but a very important one."
Are the comments harsh? You bet. Do they say what Big Telecom says they do? Not at all. McChesney is simply talking about the need to keep the Internet open, out from under the control of the telecom and cable companies. He's clearly not talking about a "public utility" in the sense of a government-owned utility, like a water company or electric company. He's not talking about government taking over telephone and cable companies. He's talking about the real danger of the companies which own the access to the Internet - a crucial distinction from the Internet itself - exerting control over the content.
Big Telecom followed up with this: "Consistent with this agenda, Free Press, Public Knowledge, and a handful of others are urging the Commission to classify broadband Internet access, either in whole or in part, as a Title II 'telecommunications service' so that it can impose common carrier rules, designed for the monopoly telephone companies of 1934, on the competitive broadband industry of today."
There is no competitive broadband industry today. The best most consumers can hope for is a duopoly -- a choice of two. Calling that a competitive industry is picking the biggest cherry of all. On the other hand, any "agenda" that would improve the competitive situation for consumers by restoring or (in cable's case) instituting some common sense rules to protect vital Internet access is hardly radical. It's traditional.