Deborah D. McAdams /
05.16.2014 09:21 AM
McAdams On: A Free and Open FCC
A sad day at the portals
At least two people were physically dragged from the open public meeting of the Federal Communications Commission on Thursday. They were not threatening nor trespassing, but speaking up about something for which they clearly had great passion—a “free and open Internet.” The commission voted on a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to alter network neutrality rules, which the D.C. Court of Appeals tossed out in January to absolutely no one’s surprise given Verizon was the plaintiff.

Network neutrality has become one of the most divisive policy issues in modern culture, like communism in the ’50s. You either are, or not. There is no in-between. There is no compromise, no gray area. Network neutrality separates the public IP network from the bits it carries. It means content providers and users control the Internet, while ISPs maintain the network. 

Whether or not that’s fair to the ISPs who invested in the networks—or even if purely impartial management is technically feasible—is not the issue for most people. There is a huge, collective fear issue at work with network neutrality. There is a fear that the Internet as we know it would go away, with its infinite well of cat comedy, MOOCs, the sublime creations of Marc Ten Bosch, and the great crowd-sourcing democratization of investment and philanthropy.

The assumption is that all these things and more would be altered or destroyed without network neutrality, as well as all the unforeseen wonders yet to be invented with a “free and open Internet,” the phrase invoked by one of the citizens* as she was dragged from the FCC public meeting.

That “free and open Internet” is actually a Google meme is but a sad footnote in this nearly decade-long conflict. The early stages involved Comcast and content pirates, who are thieves in goatees and therefore apparently folk heroes unless you’re an actor. (Whether or not Google dispatched the pirates is too farfetched to consider so we’ll pretend like I didn’t bring it up.) The bottom line here is that network neutrality started out as a war of titans and remains that way at the macro level. But these titans have now sufficiently thrown a scare into the populace such that its members lined the street in front of the FCC building and crowded the meeting room inside. 

Now I’m going to throw in something that persons even a moment younger than me will not remember or perhaps believe. There really was a time in this country when public assembly and rational debate were civic duties. Issues of public interest were discussed and ultimately crafted in accordance to majority will, not merely the interest of those in charge of carrying out the decision. Democracy was a time-honored practice.

There is less respect now for democratic participation than there is disdain, a sort of condescending dismissal of the great unwashed by those in positions of authority. The publicly assembled have become the collectively disenfranchised, regarded with the same nictitating detachment as dissenters around the world living under regimes considered oppressive.

But where does one draw the line? It’s a good question. The commissioners have held public forums around the country on network neutrality. More than 20,000 comments have been filed in the commission’s database on the subject; possibly more, given that searches of the two net neutrality dockets retrieve the “10,000 most recent records.” Literally thousands of comments have been filed in the last few months. This electronic forum, one might think, is a virtual public assembly sufficient to serve that purpose, but protesters lining the sidewalk of one of the driest public agencies in D.C. suggests otherwise.

The public, in whose interest the FCC purports to act, is in adamant opposition to the commission’s direction on network neutrality. It’s a direction that frankly hasn’t even taken a form. It’s more like a gesture toward the far horizon; a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on letting ISPs charge more for data-heavy traffic.

What we are dealing with today is a proposal not final rules. Nothing in this proposal authorizes paid prioritization,” FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler stressed after the sloganeering woman was hauled off by armed guards. He was visibly shaken, as well he should have been. The spectacle of people being dragged away from a public forum for voicing their opinion should make us all deeply uncomfortable. It suggests a fundamental breakdown of democracy, not so much because people should or should not have the right to speak during an FCC meeting, but that they felt so strongly about doing so that they risked the public humiliation of being physically restrained and thrown out.

It suggests a complete and utter failure on the part of the FCC to fully inform the public in a rational, contextual way, why ISPs want to charge a premium for the biggest bandwidth users and in what way this is justified. Far too often, FCC orders are packed with the type of promotional jargon once reserved for the most brazen of marketeers. The 2010 order opens thus:

“The commission takes an important step to preserve the Internet as an open platform for innovation, investment, job creation, economic growth, competition, and free expression.”
It lacks any mention of network management, which should be part of any discussion involving Internet regulation. The commission uses emotional language for its own ends, but rejects in-kind responses. If the agency’s revolving-door sovereignty could be a little less self-promotional and a little more devoted to ratiocination, they just might start to rebuild public confidence.

Unfortunately, Thursday’s FCC drama was no isolated phenomenon, but rather the logical result of a pattern of disregard for the public trust, which culminated with the appointment of a professional lobbyist to run the agency. That Chairman Wheeler once headed lobbies representing the interests of the nation’s largest ISPs is lost on absolutely no one in the free world. Whether or not he is capable of being a completely impartial chairman doesn’t matter. There is no way, ever—especially after the events of May 15, 2014—that he will be perceived as being objective and fair.

Unfortunately, everyone loses.

*Assumption based on speaking patterns.

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Posted by: Bob Gordon
Fri, 05-16-2014 11:12 AM Report Comment
Any deviation from a non-gatekeeper INTERNET will become an all out assault on democracy and an individual's ability to have their thoughts and content counted. Just try to create and distribute a new programming network via the cable companies gate keepers, IMPOSSIBLE! If a distributor of broadband cannot make a profit from one size fits all, let them leave the fray, not allow the tail to wag our dog. The FCC has screwed up the once greatest broadcast system, and are now hell bent on eliminating a free and fair INTERNET.
Posted by: Anonymous
Fri, 05-16-2014 10:09 AM Report Comment
Are you suggesting that people should be allowed to use bully tactics to simply interrupt a meeting of the Commission (which is not a meeting set up to take public comments at that time)? You even seem to suggest or admit that the speakers probably don't actually understand the complexities of the issue. I agree that the FCC and others have not done a good job of explaining the technical issues. But why does that justify people being allowed to shout down and presumably their goal was to stop the Commission meeting?
Posted by: Anonymous
Fri, 05-16-2014 10:52 AM Report Comment
Eloquently put, as ever. But the additional question raised before the Commission -- should ISP's be treated as telcos -- is a huge part of all this. By definition, a "common carrier" is content-agnostic, and delivers its payload responsibly and transparently. Once competing content creators are allowed to act as carriers, though, the fox is in the henhouse... the temptation to insert competitive disadvantage is too strong to resist, apparently. These companies are mired in non-customer-responsive, monolithic business models, too; and rather than adapt and update, their defensive posturing is sure to become worse. This type of attitude is endemic, and as the revolving door gradually repopulates the Commission, neither 20,000 commenters, disruptive protests, nor a lone gadfly commissioner can stem this tide, it seems.
Posted by: Anonymous
Fri, 05-16-2014 11:01 AM Report Comment
I pay my ISP each month to maintain their network so that I have access to the internet. Millions of others pay for the same service. To impart that the ISPs have been forced to supply some kind of free public service and now need to alter the laws so that they can get paid is ludicrous.
Posted by: Anonymous
Fri, 05-16-2014 11:03 AM Report Comment
I counted three people being dragged away at the beginning of the FCC meeting.
Posted by: Anonymous
Fri, 05-16-2014 11:20 AM Report Comment
In my opinion the real issue is not net neutrality, although very important, but rather the unbridled growth of cable and satellite bills, and rapidly diminishing competition. Because of that squeeze in choices the 'powers that be' can impose confiscatory fees on customers and exact demands from content providers. Strong arm tactics? Nothing is more 'strong armed' than having the law and the lack of regulations, bought by bribes from interest groups, determine the rules. What can reverse or contain this trend? Nothing short of declaring the Internet and its broadband delivery to be a public utility and thereby put in regulations that can protect the public good and assure fairness. Where is Congress on this issue? Douglas I. Sheer, CEO & Chief Analyst, D.I.S. Consulting Corporation, Woodstock, NY
Posted by: Anonymous
Fri, 05-16-2014 11:26 AM Report Comment
I think this article is the smartest summation of the situation I have read to date. Nice job. If everyone who reads this can sufficiently comprehend the complexity you outlined, only then will a dialogue emerge with the potential of empowering a more democratic response from our elected representatives.
Posted by: Anonymous
Fri, 05-16-2014 11:54 AM Report Comment
"It suggests a complete and utter failure on the part of the FCC to fully inform the public in a rational, contextual way, why ISPs want to charge a premium for the biggest bandwidth users and in what way this is justified." Yes, because those of us for net neutrality / against the paid fast lane just don't understand the complexities of the issue -- if only someone would explain it better to us, we'd see the error of our ways? As opposed to, say, we just have a fundamental disagreement and don't think that allowing ISPs to charge tolls to reach their users is a good idea? And yeah, it's definitely the FCC's job to make ATT/Comcast/Verizon's case for them as opposed to looking out for the best interests of the public, who will end up paying more for less if ATT/Comcast/Verizon get their way. I think what's really suggested by this article is a complete and utter failure by the author to either understand or fully inform in a rational, contextual way why consumers would want to pay money for the same service they get now, or less.
Posted by: Anonymous
Fri, 05-16-2014 12:07 PM Report Comment
The Commission should probably quit calling these "Open Meetings", which at least suggests that some input from the public is anticipated. In my opinion, internet connections for consumers have undergone a paradigm shift in recent years to become a delivery system for providers such as Netflix and other similar providers. This has pushed usage into the double and triple digit GB per month range, for which networks, particularly in small towns and rural areas, were not designed. Who should pay for the necessary upgrades? I anticipate that consumers will, one way or another (as they now pay for "free" broadcast TV). Regulatory reform is needed in both areas.
Posted by: Anonymous
Fri, 05-16-2014 08:00 PM Report Comment
Great article. As to the "utter failure on the part of the FCC to fully inform the public in a rational, contextual way, why ISPs want to charge a premium for the biggest bandwidth users and in what way this is justified"... Let's be clear... there is NO rational justification for any ISP charging a premium for bandwidth usage to the end-user (Comcast's metered service) AND the content provider (Netflix) over the last mile.
Posted by: Anonymous
Sun, 05-18-2014 04:04 AM Report Comment
Well, it's the job of the MEDIA to fully inform the public with informative and exciting FCC propaganda in a rational way. But in actuality, when did the FCC ever represent me? It, like other forms of government, represents the corporations. Good article! I didn't hear anything about this on major TV news. ---Duke & Banner
Posted by: Anonymous
Sun, 05-18-2014 12:31 PM Report Comment
The people fighting for "net neutrality" are clever in their use of words. Gotta parse what they are saying. The "free and open" internet? Sure, especially the "free" part. The proponents don't want to pay for the technology that provides high speed, and they don't want to pay for the bandwidth they consume. They believe they are entitled to this great communications pathway because they are such specially talented people, and you should subsidize their usage because you are, well, not as special as they are. Remember, their mothers and teachers have been telling them for decades how wonderful they are, so it must be true. The "public" internet? As far as I am aware, the public internet is restricted to defense command and control and to civilian agency communications. The internet we use was built and is operated with private money, and it is governed by consensus (the RFCs), not federal or state regulators, except insofar as parallel services are regulated. A minor exception is the Commerce Dept's control over internet names, but that is useful in keeping some other countries in line. The U.S. could, of course, have a public internet, such as provided in many other countries by the post & telegraph department, or whatever its local name may be. Had we gone down that path, we might still be restricted to dial-up because of the national security threat posed by high speed data transfers. And do you really want an agency like the Postal Service delivering your internet? You know that with a federally operated system, there will be little emphasis on efficiency or modernization, but most everybody will be treated equally, even those who cannot afford the service. Subsidized by taxpayers, of course. So, what we have in the net neutrality proponents is a group of citizens who want to impose their ideas of fairness on private enterprise, in the hope of getting something for less than they should pay. That's the first issue the fight is about. As an aside, have you noticed that no one seems to be bothered by toll roads or executive jets -- for those who want to pay a little extra for a faster, smoother trip? That's a pretty clear sign that the stated issue is not the real issue. The second big issue, one that the net neutrality proponents never mention, is that once the right to regulate the ISPs and networks is established in law, they will be well on their way to regulating what content is appropriate for the internet. Imagine TV's decency rules expanded to cover religious, political, sexual, and other content. hsn
Posted by: Anonymous
Mon, 05-19-2014 03:17 PM Report Comment
Clarify for me please, who wants to charge who how much for what? Do the ISP's really want to charge big senders like Netflix more per gigabyte delivered than ordinary individuals sending tiny e-mails? Usually it works the other way: The homeowner buying a gallon of paint pays more per gallon than the developer who buys thousands of gallons at a time.
Posted by: Anonymous
Fri, 05-23-2014 11:12 PM Report Comment
A society free of all government lives in s state of anarchy; a society with too much government lives in a state of oppression. Neither is a good thing. I interpret 'free and open internet' as meaning 'no one has an unfair advantage in delivering information. The internet should be as utilitarian as a piece of pipe. However, in order to increase their bottom line, the big media companies will do ANYTHING and EVERYTHING they can to gain even a tiny competitive advantage, and maximize profits. History has shown this over and over. Therefore, some basic regulations are needed to ensure that no one take unfair advantage of the internet to their own gain. Nothing more. It is consumer protection laws on credit cards. Yes, let consumers do what they will, include spend themselves into the poorhouse. But don't let the credit card companies use unethical and fraudulent practices to fleece card holders. All this takes is a little regulation, not a death-grip regulatory chokehold. I really do not want to sit down and find I can't see some sites on the internet because Verizon or Sprint or Comcast have paid to make sure I don't see those sites. This is why I use an independent ISP. They give me POIS (Plain Old Internet Service), with no directed searches, start pages, or any such thing. Equal and unimpeded access to all of the internet. Nothing more. Some say that net neutrality regulations would lead to regulation and censorship of the internet. That is entirely possible. But we as citizens need to work to reduce the power of government, and reduce the crushing regulatory burden that has been dropped on our shoulders. But there is always a need for some regulation (and some government to enact and enforce it) to prevent those who would want to unfairly and involuntary take advantage of others to not do so.
Posted by: Anonymous
Wed, 07-30-2014 06:45 PM Report Comment
Hi there, I enjoy reading through your post. I like to write a little comment to support you.

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