FCC Set to Roll Back Digital Civil Rights With Tomorrow’s Vote to Repeal Net Neutrality

The Federal Communications Commission is set to vote Thursday on whether to repeal the landmark net neutrality protections passed under President Obama in 2015. Net neutrality is the principle that internet service providers treat web content equally and do not block or prioritize some content over others in return for payment. The move could allow internet service providers to cut speeds and jack up prices, and drew a record 22 million comments to the FCC, which critics say the agency has not fully reviewed. “We’re talking about the future of media here and who has access and control and whose voices are valued, whose stories are told, whose stories are dehumanized,” says Joseph Torres, senior adviser for government and external affairs for Free Press, the national media reform organization.

TRANSCRIPT

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Net neutrality equals digital civil rights. That was the message projected last night onto the offices of the Federal Communications Commission offices, in one of the many protests to take place this week ahead of Thursday’s vote by the FCC on whether to repeal the landmark net neutrality protections passed under President Obama in 2015. Net neutrality is the principle that internet service providers must treat web content equally and do not block or prioritize some content over others in return for payment. The move could allow internet service providers to cut speeds and jack up prices, and drew a record 22 million comments to the FCC, which critics say the agency has not fully reviewed.

AMY GOODMAN: FCC Chairman Ajit Pai titled his proposal to repeal net neutrality the Restoring Internet Freedom Order. But on Monday, more than 20 pioneers of the internet, including World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee, published an open letter that slammed Pai’s proposal. Titled “You Don’t Understand How the Internet Works,” the letter reads, quote, “The FCC’s rushed and technically incorrect proposed Order to abolish net neutrality protections without any replacement is an imminent threat to the Internet we worked so hard to create,” unquote. The letter ends by calling on the FCC to cancel its planned vote.

Just last week, 28 senators called for a delay on the vote to repeal net neutrality rules [this] week, citing concerns raised by a New York attorney general investigation that found tens of thousands of New York residents may have been impersonated by fake commenters during the FCC’s comment period on the rule change. The vote, again, is slated for Thursday, December 14th.

For more, we’re joined in Washington, D.C., by Joseph Torres, senior adviser for government and external affairs for Free Press, the national media reform organization, former deputy director of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists.

Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Joe. Talk about the significance of what this scheduled vote will do on Thursday.

JOSEPH TORRES: Well, the FCC, on Thursday, is going to overturn the 2015 net neutrality rules that so many of us worked so hard to get passed. Those rules prevented ISPs, internet service providers, like Comcast and AT&T, as you mentioned in your intro, from blocking websites, from creating a pay-for-play system where if I want to go online and watch Democracy Now!, and Democracy Now! may have to pay an ISP more in order for their site to be seen at the fastest speeds by the public. These rules were put in place to prevent discrimination by ISPs. And if you’re Comcast and you own NBC, you have every incentive in the world to favor your own content and to block competition.

As a person of color, as people who our voices are often marginalized, we have used the open internet in order to tell our own stories. And what this is going to do is put the gatekeeper — it’s going to make these ISPs the gatekeeper to the internet. These companies provide us access to the internet, and what they are going to do is, you know, basically have a pay-for-play system, and it’s going to harm the voices of everyday people.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Joe, can you talk about how, let’s say, other countries or other areas of the world, like the European Union, have dealt with the issue of net neutrality, and specifically the growth of something called zero rating, which is sort of like when the — as I understand it, when the ISP providers bundle a particular app as part of your — so that you don’t have to — you don’t have to pay extra for digital usage for particular apps, so they favor some apps over others?

JOSEPH TORRES: Right. So, what ISPs are going to do, I mean, what’s really dangerous about what’s about to happen, the obvious, blatant discrimination, the blatant favoring of certain websites over others — some sites in the fast lane, some sites in the slow lanes — but we’re going to see all sorts of schemes, service schemes, that these companies are going to come up with, that are going to be very technical, and they are — but they are ways to favor certain content over another. So, to say HBO — HBO can pay Comcast, let’s say, or AT&T to say, “Anyone who’s using my content on — HBO content on the phone, if you access the content through your cellphone, it won’t be — it won’t count against your data caps.” And so, HBO can afford to do that, or bigger companies, Netflix or whatever, can afford to do that, but what about the — what about Democracy Now! or other websites or other media services or content companies? They won’t be able to pay to ensure that their site — that their site — that their customers can access their site without counting against their data caps. So this is a way to incentivize certain content over others. And so, zero rating is what that’s called.

But we’re going to see all sorts of different schemes that these companies are thinking of, that sound like it’s good for consumers, it’s a benefit, but it really isn’t. It’s not a benefit to democratizing people’s voices online. It’s definitely preferential treatment of certain content over others. With this — for instance, you know, after this vote happens, you may see the tiering of the internet, where you have different service packages. If you want certain websites, you pay this amount. If you want your sports channels or contact — to be able to access ESPN and other sites, you get — you have to pay this amount of money, where you — and you’ll be able to have fast access to those sites. But what about the content in those sites of everyday people, who don’t have those deep pockets to ensure that their voices could be heard? What net neutrality has done to make sure that all content is created equal is how the internet has been founded and has developed. It’s always been the guiding principle of the internet to ensure free speech. These companies are — Chairman Pai tomorrow is going to allow these companies to discriminate at will, can even block websites if they want to. What Chairman Pai is about to do is going to legally allow that to happen.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Joe, assuming that this vote, because there is a 3-to-2 Republican majority on the FCC, is most likely to go forward, what is the recourse for those who want to stop implementation of this? Are there any possibilities in Congress or through the courts?

JOSEPH TORRES: I’ll start with the courts. We’ve won in court several times. The courts have — the courts agreed with us in 2015 — of the 2015 rules, they decided that last year. The courts have been very clear that if you want to pass net neutrality rules, according to the Communications Act, you have to treat these ISPs as common carriers. And that means that they are now — if you have common carrier rules, then companies, these companies, ISPs, cannot discriminate online. What this — so, the court has been clear about this. And we believe it is so weak, this order that the chairman is about — the legal rationale, you just can’t change up regulations that the courts approved last year. So we believe that the order is so weak, so poorly written, that we have a really good chance of overturning it, once again, in court.

In Congress, we’re going to try to work with the Congress to overturn these rules, a resolution of disapproval of these rules. We have seen, in recent days, more Republicans actually beginning to raise concerns. Representative Coffman, out of Colorado, actually came out against these rules yesterday. Senator Snowe has voiced concern about these rules. There’s other Republicans who are beginning to express concerns. And that’s because of the massive amount of calls they are receiving on this issue from their constituents. We’ve heard from members of Congress that they’re getting more calls on net neutrality than they are on the tax bill. That shows you how this has really struck a nerve and how everyday people really fundamentally understand what’s at stake here. So, while we’re upset about what’s about to happen tomorrow, we’re really heartened and energized by the energy that’s out there and the — just the awareness that this issue has grown through the years that we’ve been fighting this issue. And so, we’re going to continue to fight. And we feel like we have a good shot in court. And we’re going to try to work with Congress to overturn these rules through a resolution of disapproval.

AMY GOODMAN: Joe, before we go, I wanted to talk about Ajit Pai’s background, in this remarkable moment, a joke made by the FCC chair, Ajit Pai, when he was the featured speaker last week at the Federal Communications Bar Association’s annual dinner. In response to accusations that he’s a corporate shill for the telecommunications industry — Pai is a former Verizon lawyer — Pai played what he jokingly called a, quote, “leaked, 14-year-old video” that was actually a recorded skit, supposedly set in 2003 in Verizon’s D.C. office, where Pai worked as an attorney before joining the FCC. In the video, a Verizon executive tells Pai the FCC is captured by the industry, but, quote, “not captured enough, so we have a plan.” “What plan?” Pai asks. The executive responds, “We want to brainwash and groom a Verizon puppet to install as FCC chair. Think Manchurian Candidate,” to which Pai replies, “That sounds awesome!” This is a clip, supposedly, of the leaked video. Listen closely.

KATHLEEN GRILLO: As you know, the FCC is captured by industry, but we think it’s not captured enough.

AJIT PAI: What plans do we have in mind?

KATHLEEN GRILLO: We want to brainwash and groom a Verizon puppet to install as FCC chair. Think Manchurian Candidate.

AJIT PAI: That sounds awesome!

KATHLEEN GRILLO: I know, right?

AMY GOODMAN: Again, this was played just like in the last few weeks. The Verizon executive in the skit with FCC Chairman Pai is Verizon senior vice president and deputy general counsel Kathy Grillo. Joe Torres, if you can talk about the significance of this? Again, Ajit Pai, the FCC chair, former Verizon attorney.

JOSEPH TORRES: Well, when that was happening, we were out there on the streets in front of the Washington Hilton, which I believe is the same place they hold the Washington correspondents’ dinner each year with the president. And it’s this Washington insider thing, where the lobbyists come together and they tell jokes. The head of the FCC each year gives a roast of himself.

And to me, he was just telling the truth of who he is. It was plain and clear, like it wasn’t even — I mean, it’s supposed to be funny, but, to me, he was just being honest about who he is and his intention. He has stated from the beginning of this process that he plans to win this battle. He made that — he made that comment at an event at FreedomWorks early in April. He has — he’s been totally intentional, what he’s doing. And I think he was only speaking — he was only telling the truth about himself. It wasn’t even funny.

But this tells you like — that scene, it tells you everything you need to know. You hear all those lobbyists inside there laughing. Folks are on the street protesting. That day, that very day he spoke, there were over 700 protests at Verizon stores across the country. Thousands of people showed up, hundreds in New York, hundreds in Boston, hundreds in Seattle.

And we’re going to continue to protest. We’re protesting tomorrow outside the FCCat 9:00 to 11:00. We’re making sure the voices of people of color are being heard. And for me, what’s really troubling, here is the first Indian-American FCC chairman, and he really doesn’t care about the impact of net neutrality and other issues he’s overseeing on communities of color. And so, we’re going to make sure our voices are heard, because we’re the — our communities are the most impacted by this. And so, yeah, that is — you’ve covered before the Washington correspondents’ dinner and how grotesque it is. And this is — you know, net neutrality and the open internet, we’re talking about the future of media here and who has access and control and whose voices are valued, whose stories are told, whose stories are dehumanized. It’s not a joke.

AMY GOODMAN: Joe, we’re going to have to leave it there, but I thank you so much for being with us, and we’ll continue to cover this, of course. Joseph Torres, senior adviser for government and external affairs for Free Press, the national media reform organization.

When we come back, a major victory for parents and community control of public schools in Philadelphia. Stay with us.

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AMY GOODMAN: “Modulation” by The Classic Brown, from the album Rock the [Net]: Musicians for Network Neutrality.