Saturday, May 17, 2014

For This Blogger, "It's A Long Way To -Tipperary-... The FCC Fast Lane"

Net Non-neutrality is alive and well in the state capital of the Lone Star State. This blogger pays Time Warner Cable top dollar for his Internet connection (along with TV and phone) and, minutes ago, a speed test clocked his TW download speed at 5.03 Mbps. By the fall 2014, TW promises the following speeds:

If this is a (fair & balanced) bait & switch scheme by Time Warner Cable, so be it.

[x The Nation]
It’s Not Complicated: To Maintain A Truly Free And Open Internet, Maintain True Net Neutrality
By John Nichols

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Federal Communications Commission chair Tom Wheeler created a firestorm when he proposed to establish an Internet fast lane that would favor free-spending corporations and special-interest groups, while discriminating against those who cannot pay to play. Wheeler’s assault on Net Neutrality, the first amendment of the Internet, has been met with determined opposition from a broad range of Americans who want to maintain honest competition and a democratic discourse in the digital era.

So broad, in fact, that Wheeler has now tinkered with his initial proposal in hopes of easing the outcry and securing support for his response to court rulings that have required the FCC to revisit issues of Internet speed and access. The official line from the FCC, in anticipation of a Thursday vote on the issue, is that the revised approach “clearly reflects public input the commission has received” and that Wheeler is now “explicit that the goal is to find the best approach to ensure the Internet remains open and prevent any practices that threaten it.”

Wheeler has felt the heat. His revised approach embraces some of the language of critics, and expresses an openness to debate about what a growing consensus among responsible members of Congress and advocacy groups says is the right response to the issue: reclassification of Internet providers as “telecommunications services” that can be regulated in the public interest.

But Wheeler has not moved as far as the official pronouncements might suggest. Indeed, according to The Wall Street Journal, despite the talk of “tweaks” to the initial plan, the chairman “is sticking to the same basic approach.”

An analysis from Matt Wood, a public interest lawyer who formerly worked with the Media Access Project and now works with the media reform group Free Press, concludes that the revisions proposed by Wheeler “fall far short.” Indeed, argues Wood, “Unless the chairman reverses his fundamentally failed approach, we won’t have real Net Neutrality—and we will have rampant discrimination online.”

As Wheeler moves to open a debate about how to maintain net neutrality, there will be many efforts to fuzz the margins of the debate. Some corporate interests will attack net neutrality itself, as will their congressional allies. Savvier players will attempt to suggest that Wheeler is trying to “strike a balance.” But a balance with Internet “fast lanes” and “slow lanes” is tipped against citizens and consumers. And that’s the problem with Wheeler’s latest revision. For all the talk of progress, Michael Weinberg, vice president of the advocacy group Public Knowledge, says he and his group remains “concerned that the FCC is considering some kind of paid prioritization.”

“Paid prioritzation” would recreate the Internet as a place where, potentially, there would be superhighway service for big-ticket customers and dirt roads for small businesses, creative artists and citizen groups. In a political context, it has the potential to narrow access to ideas and reduce the range of debate. As the American Civil Liberties Union warns:

Profits and corporate disfavor of controversial viewpoints or competing services could change both what you can see on the Internet and the quality of your connection. And the need to monitor what you do online in order to play favorites means even more consumer privacy invasions piled on top of the NSA’s prying eyes.

That’s the fundamental fear of activists, who continue to contact the FCC urging rejection of Wheeler’s fundamentally flawed initiative. Ironically, citizens who phone the agency to express support for a free and open Internet are now being urged, because of the overwhelming number of calls, to use the Internet to communicate their objections. Of course, a top objection is that, if Wheeler gets the commission to undermine net neutrality, the effectiveness of the Internet as a tool for challenging corporate abuses and bad policies will be undermined.

To keep the flow of communications going to the FCC, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, a net neutrality advocate, has created a special form on his Senate website for citizens to use. On Tuesday, his office delivered nearly 19,000 new comments to the agency.

Wheeler misread things when he imagined that Americans are interested in compromising when it comes to net neutrality—that, beyond the corridors of corporate and political power, there is a constituency for surrendering a little bit of Internet freedom here, a little bit of Internet openness there. There’s no popular enthusiasm for creating a pay-to-play Internet. Americans in growing numbers recognize that once net neutrality is undermined, the Internet will no longer be free and open.

The simple, right and necessary response to the whole question of how to maintain Net Neutrality is to reclassify broadband Internet access as a telecommunications service that can be regulated in the public interest. Indeed, as media reformers note, “The FCC can’t prevent online discrimination and blocking unless it reclassifies broadband providers as common carriers.”

While Wheeler and his aides now say they will accept some discussion of reclassification, Broadcasting & Cable magazine reports that the chairman sees the use of existing rules—rather than reclassification—as the “effective path forward.”

That is a mistake.

When a clumsy previous attempt by the FCC to establish net neutrality protections was rejected in January by the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, the court did not say that the commission lacked regulatory authority—simply that it needed a better approach. As David Sohn, general legal counsel at the Center for Democracy & Technology, has noted, the court opinion laid out “exactly how the FCC essentially tied its own hands in the case, and makes it clear that the FCC has the power to fix the problem.”

“The Court upheld the FCC’s general authority to issue rules aimed at spurring broadband deployment, and accepted the basic policy rationale for Internet neutrality as articulated by the FCC,” explained Sohn. “The arguments in favor of Internet neutrality are as strong as ever, but prior FCC decisions on how to treat broadband have painted the agency into a corner. Those decisions are not set in stone, however, and the ball is now back in the FCC’s court. The FCC should reconsider its classification of broadband Internet access and re-establish its authority to enact necessary safeguards for Internet openness.”

That’s what the message that will be delivered by net neutrality defenders this week, with a large demonstration planned for Thursday at the FCC, and with activist groups suggesting they will deliver petitions with roughly 1 million signatures opposing any move toward a pay-to-play Internet.

Recent days have seen new expressions of opposition from members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, newspaper editorials, democracy advocates, forward-looking businesses and artists. On Tuesday, rockers like Tom Morello, the Rage Against the Machine guitarist who is now playing with Bruce Springsteen; Aerosmith’s Joe Perry; Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters; Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder; and REM’s Michael Stipe; along with Hip-Hop pioneer Davey D, songwriters Neko Case and Erin McKeown and the contemporary-classic innovators of the Kronos Quartet, all signed an open letter to Tom Wheeler and the Federal Communications Commission declaring:

The open Internet’s impact on the creative community cannot be overstated. The Internet has enabled artists to connect directly with each other and with audiences. It has eliminated the barriers of geography and taken collaborations to new levels. And it has allowed people—not corporations—to seek out the film, music and art that moves them.

Allowing broadband providers to control this once-open platform shifts power away from individual artists and creators and interferes with freedom of speech and expression. Unless the Commission restores strong nondiscrimination protections based on a solid legal framework, creativity, cultural commerce and free expression will suffer.

Your proposed path would open the door to widespread discrimination online. It would give Internet service providers the green light to implement pay-for-priority schemes that would be disastrous for startups, nonprofits and everyday Internet users who cannot afford these unnecessary tolls. We urge you to scrap these proposed rules and instead restore the principle of online nondiscrimination by reclassifying broadband as a telecommunications service.

The artists allied with the Future of Music Coalition and the Rock the Net project are correct.

The FCC does not need to have an tortured debate about trying again to do what has failed in the past.

It can reject wrongheaded proposals and destructive “compromises” and pursue the reclassification option.

The point of beginning ought to be with an “unwavering commitment” to maintaining net neutrality. That’s not a radical stance. In fact, it is the stated position of FCC member Mignon Clyburn.

Clyburn has served on the commission since 2009, and for much of 2013 she served as the acting chair of the FCC. Media analysts hailed her “legacy of accomplishment” and referred to her tenure as “ridiculously productive.” Clyburn is a senior member of the commission. Before she was appointed to the FCC, she served for eleven years on the Public Service Commission of South Carolina, earning a reputation as diligent defender of the public interest who focused on the legitimate concerns of consumers rather than the bottom-line demands of corporations.

Clyburn knows her way around the issues the FCC is wrestling with. So what does she say about net neutrality? “There is no doubt that preserving and maintaining a free and open Internet is fundamental to the core values of our democratic society, and I have an unwavering commitment to its independence,” argues the commissioner.

That’s the smart starting point, as is Clyburn’s argument that the January decision by the DC Circuit Court of Appeals to reject a flawed approach to net neutrality not as a crisis but as opening to get things right. “Unlike many,” explains Clyburn, “I actually see this remand as a unique opportunity for us to take a fresh look and evaluate our policy in light of the many developments that have occurred over the last four years.”

Clyburn and another Democratic appointee to the commission, Jessica Rosenworcel, have offered indications that they are not happy with Wheeler’s approach. Rosenworcel recently called for a delay in consideration of the chair’s proposal. Wheeler has altered his initial proposal in hopes of gaining the support of Clyburn and Rosenworcel for formally opening consideration of the proposed rule changes.

Reuters reported Tuesday that Clyburn and Rosenworcel are “likely to vote in favor of formally proposing the rules as a way to launch the process of collecting public comment and more information.”

Bringing the public into the process is important. Decisions about the future of communications and democracy should never be made behind closed doors.

What is vital, however, is an understanding of what is at stake.

The notion that a debate about net neutrality might find some digital common ground where some pay-for-prioity “fast lanes” might be allowed is rooted in a misunderstanding of how net neutrality works. Any plan that allows for Internet “fast lanes” and “slow lanes” does not alter net neutrality; it ends net neutrality.

What is needed is a clear commitment to reclassification, rooted in the understanding that “a free and open Internet is fundamental to the core values of our democratic society.” If the three Democratic appointees to the commission—Clyburn, Rosenworcel and Wheeler—were to make that commitment, they could move quickly and responsibly to maintain net neutrality.

Reclassification is not complicated. But it is necessary.

Minnesota Senator Al Franken explains the calculus well.

“To my mind, you have to say that internet is telecommunications. That’s all you have to do. That’s the response to [court rulings that require a better plan from the FCC],” says Franken. “So you say, it’s telecommunications, and then the FCC has the power to enforce Net Neutrality and continue to try to solve network management problems and we continue to have the kind of innovation that we’ve had, that has made the Internet what it is.” Ω

[John Nichols writes about politics for The Nation magazine as its Washington correspondent. He is a contributing writer for The Progressive and In These Times and the associate editor of the Capital Times, the daily newspaper in Madison, WI. His articles have appeared in the New York Times, Chicago Tribune and dozens of other newspapers. His most recent book is Uprising: How Wisconsin Renewed the Politics of Protest, from Madison to Wall Street (2012). Nichols received a BA from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and an MA from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.]

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