Decision Time: Fast Lanes for the 1% and Slow Lanes for the 99%?

JULY 1, 2014

Good morning, Chairman Leahy and Congressman Welch. Thank you, Mr. Chairman, for the invitation to address this hearing on the crucial issue of how to guarantee an Open Internet. Traveling outside of the Washington, D.C. Beltway to hear from citizens who must live with the policies Washington creates is essential. I made it my priority to do that as a Commissioner at the Federal Communications Commission, I wish the present FCC would do the same on this issue, and I especially commend you for doing so as Chairman of the Judiciary Committee. I would also like to recognize your leadership on keeping the Internet Open by introducing legislation to prevent paid-prioritization of online content.

More and more people now understand the Internet to be the most opportunity-creating tool of our time. It is, increasingly, the door to jobs, education, healthcare, equal opportunity, and to the news and information we need to sustain our civic dialogue. But the question now is: opportunity for whom? Is the Net going to be the tool of the many that helps us all live better—or will it become the playground of the privileged few that only widens the many divides that are creating a stratified and unequal America? Are we heading toward an online future with fast lanes for the 1% and slow lanes for the 99%?

Well, it’s decision time. Now. The Federal Communications Commission is considering rules that would permit giant Internet Service Providers (ISPs) like Comcast, Verizon and AT&T to create fast lanes for their business partners and friends who can afford to pay what will inevitably be very heavy freight, while start-ups, innovators, and potential competitors are priced out of the express lane. The fate of the Internet will be decided in the next few months, so this is the time for concerned citizens to speak out.

When gatekeeper control partitions the Internet, everyone other than the gatekeeper suffers. Consider what a tremendous engine the Internet can be for small business growth; you know about that right here in Vermont. Thanks to the Open Internet, consumers across the country can purchase the delectable homemade jams and jellies that Potlicker Kitchen sells online. Expensive fast lanes for the few could ruin the entrepreneurial opportunity Potlicker has created for itself. Vermont Country Store, which is here this morning, will likely tell a similar story. Extend that across the country and you begin to see the enormous economic opportunity costs gatekeeping entails. The same gatekeeping forces will be able to throttle innovation in other areas – by for example, foreclosing new developments in distance learning that would grant rural schools in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom access to state of the art lectures from the University here in Burlington. We can’t build thousands of new needed businesses, we can’t have top-notch education for our kids, we can’t get America out of the economic rut it is in, when the one tool that can help make it all happen is controlled by a handful of communications and media giants whose main concern is the bottom line on the company’s quarterly report.

How did we get here? For openers, public policy has too often worked against the Internet. First, we witnessed years of telecommunications and media consolidation wherein a few giant companies gobbled up small competitors and built monopoly markets across the nation. They wielded armies of lobbyists and wheelbarrows filled with money to win government approval of these mergers and acquisitions. Almost always they won. Second, the FCC consciously decided against meaningful public oversight of broadband and the Internet. In one of the strangest decisions ever made by a federal agency, the Commission decided over a decade ago that the broadband infrastructure on which the Internet rides wasn’t telecommunications at all and was therefore outside the consumer protection and common carriage requirements that are integral parts of the traditional telephone service we grew up with. Those protections were part of Title II of the Telecommunications Act. That’s where broadband telecommunications belong, too. And until the FCC puts them there, clearly and strongly, we are not going to have an Open Internet.

Title II classification is the prerequisite of an Open Internet. It is the essential first step. There is no clever new way to get this done. After properly classifying broadband, we must go on to deal with other challenges to the Open Internet, such as the interconnection and peering arrangements that determine how content accesses and gets distributed across the Net. Discrimination and blocking can take place upstream just as easily as on the last mile from the ISP to the consumer’s home. And I don’t believe consumers particularly care where on the Internet that discrimination takes place because its effects are equally pernicious.

And, of course, we must find our way back to a more competitive broadband environment by saying “No!” to the endless torrent of mergers and acquisitions that is distorting not just our communications, but our democracy. These combinations are a major reason why your country and mine has gone from broadband leader 15 years ago to broadband laggard today—Number 15 in the world according to the OECD, and far worse in other respected rankings when it comes to ubiquity of service, speed, and the prices consumers pay. And now these telecom titans are proposing more mergers to further stifle competition, ration their broadband, extract monopoly rents from consumers, and exacerbate gatekeeper control.

In the end, this all comes back to democracy. Free expression and democratic engagement suffer in a gated Internet. Consigning alternative, non-profit, and dissenting voices to the slow lane makes it harder for users to access diverse kinds of information. Moreover, since we now use broadband to both consume and produce, paid-prioritization schemes hinder the ability of citizens to speak out and truly have their voices heard. An Internet controlled and managed for the benefit of the “haves” discriminates against our rights not just as consumers but, more importantly, as citizens. Allowing powerful ISPs or giant Internet companies to control what we see and share on the Net is inimical to the health of our nation. If an ISP can slow down or block those sites who refuse to play the game, if they can decide that some good cause or advocacy group they disagree with can be voted off the Net, then we have starved the nourishing potential of this technology and truncated the rights of citizens to share in a communications revolution that should be more about We, the People than it is about the privileged few. I want an Internet where vtdigger and its deep-dive investigative journalism can get to me just as quickly as some huge corporation’s infotainment babble.

Yes, I feel strongly about this. It is why I am crisscrossing the country on behalf of Common Cause and our allies in the public interest community to encourage citizens to speak up now to demand that the FCC ensure real Internet Freedom. Millions have already signed on, but millions more are needed to win this battle. Whose Internet is it anyway? And whose democracy is it?

Thank you, Mr. Chairman, and I look forward to your comments and questions.

By Michael Copps.