After much anticipation, the chair of the Federal Communications Commission has unveiled what he calls “the strongest open internet protections ever proposed by the [agency].” Tom Wheeler backed the regulation of Internet service like a public utility in order to uphold net neutrality, the principle of a free and open Internet. The new rules would prevent Internet service providers like Comcast from blocking access to websites, slowing down content, or providing paid fast lanes for Internet service. It would also extend such protections to Internet service on cell phones and tablets. The proposal comes after the FCC received a record-setting number of public comments — nearly four million, almost all in support of strong protections. President Obama also released public statements in support of Internet protections. The FCC will vote on the plan February 26, ahead of an influx of lobbying by the telecom industry, which has also threatened to sue if the measure passes. We are joined by Tim Karr, senior director of strategy for Free Press, one of the main organizers of the Internet Countdown campaign leading up to the FCC’s net neutrality vote.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: After much anticipation, this week the chair of the Federal Communications Commission unveiled what he calls, quote, “the strongest open internet protections ever proposed by the [agency].” In a blog post published Wednesday on the website of Wired magazine, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler backed the regulation of Internet service like a public utility to uphold net neutrality, the principle of a free and open Internet. Noting he used to think that the FCC could assure Internet openness through a determination of commercial reasonableness, Wheeler wrote, quote, “While a recent court decision seemed to draw a roadmap for using this approach, I became concerned that this relatively new concept might, down the road, be interpreted to mean what is reasonable for commercial interests, not consumers. That is why I am proposing that the FCC use its Title II authority to implement and enforce open internet protections.”
AMY GOODMAN: Wheeler’s plan will let the agency prevent Internet service providers like Comcast from blocking access to websites, slowing down content or providing paid fast lanes for Internet service. It would also extend such protections to Internet service on cellphones and tablets. Wheeler discussed the plan on PBS NewsHour.
TOM WHEELER: What we’re doing is we’re taking the legal construct that once was used for phone companies and paring it back to modernize it so it specifically deals with this issue. So it’s not really utility regulation, but it is regulation to make sure that there is somebody watching out for the consumer, that, like you said, there’s no paid prioritization, there’s no blocking, there’s no throttling. And, most important, there will be ongoing rules, in perpetuity, so that there will be a yardstick to measure what’s fair for consumers.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Tom Wheeler, a former lobbyist for the cellphone and cable industries, was not initially expected to take such a strong stand on net neutrality. His proposal comes after the FCC received a record-setting number of comments—nearly four million, almost all in support of strong protections. By comparison, Janet Jackson’s accidental exposure of her breast during the 2004 Super Bowl triggered 1.4 million comments to the FCC. On Wednesday, Democratic Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts hailed Wheeler’s proposal.
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SEN. ED MARKEY: Today is a day where consumers and innovators, entrepreneurs, anyone who counts on the Internet to connect to the world, is going to now be protected in the 21st century. Reclassifying broadband under Title II is a major victory for our economy, for our consumers and for free expression of ideas.
AMY GOODMAN: The FCC will vote on Wheeler’s proposal February 26, ahead of an influx of lobbying by the telecom industry, which has also threatened to sue if the measure passes.
For more, we’re joined by Tim Karr, senior director of strategy for Free Press. They are one of the main organizers of the Internet Countdown campaign leading up to the FCC’s net neutrality vote on February 26.
Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Tim.
TIM KARR: Thank you, Amy.
AMY GOODMAN: So talk about this. Is this a complete turnaround? And talk about the significance. What does it mean to be a—to regulate it? Is it, under Title II, a public utility?
TIM KARR: This is a remarkable victory. It is a true David-and-Goliath story, except in this instance there are four million Davids who contacted the FCC. There are hundred thousands more who have been calling members of Congress. And we’ve turned conventional wisdom on its ear. And everybody thought at the beginning of the year that the phone and cable lobby would simply write this rule and be done with it. That has changed completely.
What Chairman Wheeler has done is proposed Title II protections, which are not public utility protections in the sense. Where he’s focused is on the issue of discrimination. And the reason that they call this “new media” is it’s not like old media: It’s not like television, it’s not like radio, it’s not like newspapers. Those are one-way medias. This is a two-way communications media. And the rule that he proposes protects two-way communications. It will make sure that the provider, the carrier of that information, cannot discriminate in any way.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Tim, Verizon released a statement calling FCC Chair Wheeler’s proposal counterproductive. It said, quote, “the FCC can address any harmful behavior without taking this radical step.” And the company warned that “heavy regulation of the Internet will create uncertainty and chill investment among the many players.”
TIM KARR: Well, the irony about Verizon is that this whole process began when Verizon sued the FCC on an earlier rule that was insufficient—it didn’t use the Title II authority. The FCC lost that lawsuit and is now proposing Title II, which is the proper solution. Now Verizon is claiming that they want to go back to the old system, the one that they sued for. So, Verizon has put forth all sorts of arguments. They’ve said that it will cripple investment, and then their CFO went before investors and said, “Title II won’t in fact affect investment in any way.” So, you will be hearing this sort of noise from the phone and cable lobby as February 26 approaches. That is the day of the vote. What Wheeler has done is simply announced his intentions via Wired, PBS and some other outlets. But we don’t really know the fine details of the order.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, it seems to me one of the interesting things about this in terms of the public response is that we’ve now seen, over the last decade or so, numerous major battles occur over the question of media policy and communications policy in the country, usually not covered by the commercial press. Yet I’m thinking back to 2002 with the whole—
TIM KARR: Yes.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —major media mergers under Chairman Powell during the Bush administration; two million people commented to the FCC, opposed to it. Now we’ve had this four million people on the issue of net neutrality. So you’re seeing this enormous public movement, despite the fact that it’s not being—the commercial media are not paying attention to these major policy battles.
TIM KARR: Well, there’s an explanation for that. Oftentimes the commercial media has a stake in the outcomes of these policy fights, so oftentimes you will find them undercovered. But the public does understand what’s at stake here. And what’s at stake is their ability to connect and communicate without interference from these providers. And it’s really—this movement for media reform has really picked up steam in the last five years. We saw millions of people protesting PIPA and SOPA legislation in 2011. They managed to kill a bill that had very draconian copyright legislation written in—rules written into the legislation. And now we’re fighting for net neutrality. So what is really happening is that the Internet—the Internet public is truly a constituency. We are a group of millions of peoples, who come from all different backgrounds, who must be dealt with before Congress writes any laws that threaten our rights to connect and communicate.
AMY GOODMAN: In November, protesters called on Wheeler to favor net neutrality as they blockaded his driveway when he attempted to go to work.
PROTESTER: I’m sorry, but we can’t let you go to work today, because you work for Comcast, Verizon and AT&T, and not for the people. And so, we can’t let you go there, because you’re selling us out on Internet neutrality, and that’s not OK with us. So, we want to know which side you’re on, Tom.
AMY GOODMAN: Which side are you on, Tom? And then, back in May, we were in Washington, and we went over to the FCC, and there was an Occupy-like encampment outside of the FCC.
TIM KARR: Yes, I mean, the creativity of the grassroots has been really remarkable. There have been events around the country. There have been marches. There was a cat parade recently, where you had numerous cats, or representations of cats, stake out the lawn of the FCC. Cats, of course, are considered the mascot of the open Internet. So, there has been a sort of million points of pressure against the agency, that goes all the way up to the White House.
The president in November, of course, sided with net neutrality advocates and said Title II is the way that you solve this problem, is the way that you protect Internet users. So, this has been a very momentous occasion. We still have three weeks left before the vote occurs. After that, Congress will likely get engaged with this. And so, while we’re very happy today, there’s still a lot of work to be done.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to ask you about the amazing change in Wheeler’s position on this, because, you know, he was—he’s, I think, the only person ever elected to both the cable industry hall of fame and the telecom industry hall of fame. He was a lobbyist for the industry for many years. And yet he has gradually shifted, even perhaps now promulgating a stronger policy than even President Obama was talking about. And can you talk about that shift? And also, in his statement, he said that his own experience as an initial entrepreneur, when he was starting a small—a company back several decades ago, showed him the dangers of the cable industry being gatekeepers to the Internet. Could you talk about that?
TIM KARR: Well, he could certainly draw from that experience. It’s interesting with Chairman Wheeler, because what usually happens at the FCC is that you’re a public servant first, and there’s this thing called the revolving door which then spins you out into jobs in industry. The person who’s the top lobbyist for the National Cable & Telecommunications Association is a former chairman, Michael Powell, who you probably remember from those fights in 2003.
And Wheeler is at the end of his career. He’s a very dedicated Obama supporter, who was appointed by the president. He raised money for President Obama’s elections, or his campaigns. And so, he feels, I think, an allegiance both to Obama—he’s received a lot of pressure from the public. We’ve kind of narrowed his options for him, and he’s finally come to a point of realization that Title II is actually the best solution.
AMY GOODMAN: And four million responses on the FCC website, that’s more than any response to any government agency in history.
TIM KARR: Yes, this has been a remarkable mobilization. And it’s not just groups like Free Press, but there are groups—Demand Progress, Fight for the Future, Color of Change—that really cover the political spectrum, that have gone out to their constituents and engaged them in this process. And they’re still very engaged. People should really—do really have reason to celebrate today.
AMY GOODMAN: Tim Karr, I want to thank you for being with us, senior director of strategy for Free Press, one of the main organizers of the Internet Countdown campaign leading up to the FCC’s net neutrality vote on February 26.
This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. When we come back, a Democracy Now! exclusive. A former Florida professor has been deported this week from the United States. We will speak to him in Istanbul, Turkey. Stay with us.