FCC Commissioners held a public hearing on May 15 where they voted 3 to 2 to move ahead with rules which could put an end to Net neutrality. Outside the FCC building, protestors had been camped out for days to draw attention to the potential for big changes in who gets premium access to the Internet.
Five members of the audience at the hearing spoke up on behalf on Net neutrality but were immediately ejected, including Kevin Zeese and Margaret Flowers of Popular Resistance, Medea Benjamin of CODEPINK, and one member of Veterans for Peace. Cayman Kai was dragged out just prior to Chairman Wheeler speaking.
Public interest groups question whether Chairman Tom Wheeler’s proposed “Open Internet” rules would truly preserve a free and open Internet. Wheeler was met with a backlash of criticism in the week before the hearing, and, in addition to hundred of thousands of Internet petition signatures, phones at the FCC were ringing off the hook. Wheeler appeared to be backing down in the face of criticism from other Commissioners, but he stood his ground to get the measures passed.
Corporations have been lobbying the FCC and Congress to deregulate government oversight of the Internet and let market demand determine privilege of access. Public interest advocates, on the other hand, want to preserve the Internet as a public commodity with equal access for everyone without “fast lanes” for big companies who can pay for them. They would like for the Internet to be re-classified as a “common carrier” under Title II. Both sides claim that the economy and basic freedoms are at stake.
The fact that FCC intentions and corporate interests align on this issue is nothing new for this regulatory agency, which is subject to “revolving door” personnel changes between government and industry. After four years as head of the FCC, Chairman Genachowski took a position with the global Carlyle Group within a year of leaving the agnecy in 2013. She was the one who conceived of the Incentive Auction Task Force in March 2012, which was formally created by Chairman Wheeler at Thursday’s meeting. Wheeler was also a telecom lobbyist before taking his FCC position.
The Internet as a hybrid of an open commons for the people and a service provided by corporate carriers has managed to provide equality of access since the 1980’s. The Bush era did some damage to fairness by re-classifying the Internet as an “information service.” Big telecom companies such as Verizon, Comcast, AT&T and a handful of others wish to loosen the rules of fair play even further.
Matt Wood of FreePress.net talks about how the May 15 hearing was preceded by nearly a decade of history. This issue has been challenged in the courts several times. At the hearing, FCC Commissioners took turns speaking on the merits of Net neutrality or their wishes to release Net speed to the whims of the “open market” through an auction.
Chairman Wheeler credited the protesters of #OccupyTheFCC, who camped out in front of FCC headquarter for an entire week. “Thank you to those who feel so strongly about this that they’d be living in tents outside of the building, and I enjoyed our meeting,” he said. Wheeler went on to describe the historic significance of free speech: “One can only conclude that our founding fathers must be looking down smiling.”
After buttering up the crowd with such praise, it was all business for the former lobbyist, who was recently appointed by President Obama. “Protecting the open Internet is important for both the consumer and economic growth,” he said. “We are dedicated to protecting and preserving an open Internet.”
“I will not allow the national asset of an open internet to be compromised,” he declared. “I have scars as my company got denied access in the pre-Internet days.”
Title II, the provision to re-classify the Internet as a common carrier, however, was barely mentioned.
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