As I See It: The Wheeler Dealer
May 19, 2014 Victor Rozek
Unless you have been in a protracted digital coma, you have probably noticed that the Internet is starting to look like a dead man walking. And if you have a high tolerance for duplicity, you may find it amusing to watch the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) go through public paroxysm deciding on the least offensive way to dress the body for viewing.
Officially, the FCC exists to “regulate interstate and international communications.” But like most regulatory agencies, unofficially it is an industry front group. Nonetheless, it is classified as an “independent U.S. government agency,” which sounds suspiciously oxymoronic. And that suspicion is confirmed by the fact that the FCC is overseen by Congress, whose penchant for meddling is fueled by politics and big money.
Among its high-minded responsibilities is “Encouraging the highest and best use of spectrum,” and therein lies the proverbial rub–who makes that determination and by what standard? Based on the FCC’s past decisions, “highest and best” means most profitable. Championing policies that provide the biggest rewards for the largest companies–often at the expense of the public good–has been the FCC’s backroom directive. It is how so much broadcast media came to be under the control of so few corporations, and why news reporting has evolved to be about as unbiased as a swastika.
Regrettably, congressional oversight has proven to be a purchasable commodity. It’s a safe bet that members of the Commerce Committee are either blinded by the specter of corporate gratitude or have already been paid handsomely not to look beyond it. Where the Internet is concerned, what’s most profitable for Comcast and Verizon bears little resemblance to what’s best for their users. But then again, the average user has neither access nor opportunity to cavort with the chairman of the FCC.
That would be Tom Wheeler. He’s the bandito holding the gun to the head of the Internet while swearing up and down that it’s not loaded. His reasoning borders on being bipolar. On one hand, he is in favor of a two-tiered, pay for play Internet. On the other, he insists it won’t adversely affect the service of those who can’t afford premium prices. That’s like deregulating Wall Street while insisting no one will be tempted to defraud you. Who would be stupid enough to do that? (Oh waitâ€¦.we were.)
To understand Wheeler’s desire to allow ISPs to eat your cake while simultaneously claiming to protect it, we need look no further than his past affiliations. For years Wheeler was a lobbyist for the cable and wireless industry. (Lobbyists regulating industries they formerly served is a classic indication that the agency is little more than a corporate shill.) He was past president of the National Cable Television Association, and CEO of the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association. So why would a president who campaigned on the virtues of net neutrality appoint him to the chairmanship of the FCC? Did I mention Wheeler raised $500,000 for his benefactor’s presidential campaign? Ah, synergy.
From the start, the selection of Wheeler was suspect. A veteran Washington telecommunications insider told Reuters that “all of the senators in the Commerce Committee know Tom as a lobbyist who funnels funds to them, not as a stand-up guy from a regulatory agency who is able to take heat.” So when Google, Facebook and about 140 other companies signed a letter calling Wheeler’s proposals “a grave threat to the Internet,” he contrived a cosmetic backpedal.
Wheeler tried to reassure a skeptical and increasingly angry public that “the FCC will scrutinize deals to make sure that broadband providers don’t unfairly put nonpaying companies’ content at a disadvantage.” But that’s like saying the warden is going to review the legality of the execution after the prisoner is dead.
Further, Wheeler said he intends to prohibit big broadband providers, such as Comcast, Verizon, and AT&T, from offering terms to preferred content distributors that they weren’t extending to others. Well, that’s certainly reassuring. Timothy Prickett Morgan can rest easy knowing that IT Jungle will be allowed to compete head-to-head with Netflix for bandwidth.
Barbara van Schewick and Morgan Weiland of the Stanford Law School’s Center for Internet and Society offered a temperate analysis of Wheeler’s proposal: “So instead of an Internet with a slow lane and a fast lane, the new proposal might result in an Internet that offers a ‘not-so-fast, but not totally crappy lane’ to applications that don’t pay.”
Conveniently, (at least where Wheeler is concerned) the entire issue currently hinges on legal semantics. Last year Verizon challenged net neutrality in court. As The Washington Post reported, Judge David Tatel, of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, found that [existing] “network neutrality rules contradicted a previous FCC decision that put broadband companies beyond its regulatory reach.” Can you spell coincidence?
The judge further noted: “Given that the Commission has chosen to classify broadband providers in a manner that exempts them from treatment as common carriers, the Communications Act expressly prohibits the Commission from nonetheless regulating them as such.” In other words, if the FCC wants to regulate the Internet it will have to reclassify it as a public utility rather than an information service. But that would set off congressional apoplexy. Being associated with killing neutrality before midterm elections makes for poor political strategy.
For his part, Wheeler continues to insist he is the defender of a free and open Internet. And if that’s true, then his recommendations are not only twisted but wholly unnecessary. As fellow FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai noted: “Today’s announcement reminds me of the movie Groundhog Day. The Internet was free and open before the FCC adopted net neutrality rules. It remains free and open today,” he said. “Net neutrality has always been a solution in search of a problem.”
Meanwhile, fuming neutrality activists were camped out in front of the FCC waiting for the full text of Wheeler’s proposal to be released on May 15. That kicked off a period of public comment (which will be dutifully collected and mightily ignored). Presumably, the campers wanted their comments to be heard directly, which they no doubt were since the commission predictably voted to enact a two-tier Internet. For Wheeler’s sake, part of his plans should include an escape strategy.
Should Wheeler become a too much of a political liability, his industry alliances will no doubt prove useful. Michael Powell, the disastrous former head of the FCC (and son of the duplicitous Colin Powell), now holds Wheeler’s old job, chief executive of the National Cable Television Association. The revolving door remains well-greased and–win or lose–Wheeler is sure to be rewarded for his efforts on behalf of his former clients.
Sadly, the welfare of the Internet is far down the priority list for the FCC. It’s a classic conflict of interests that privatizes profits for selected elites and socializes costs for the greater society. As long as those profiting can insulate themselves from the consequences of a two-tiered Internet, which they can, they have little reason to support neutrality.
Ultimately, one of two considerations will determine the fate of the Internet. Since the Supreme Court opportunistically eliminated limits on campaign contributions, if enough money has been expropriated from the affected ISPs, then neutrality is toast. Alternately, if the political backlash is projected to be too damaging, then the inevitable will be postponed. Either way, a combination of greed and a growing disdain for the will of the 99 percent, suggests that an Internet of, by, and for the wealthy shall not perish from the earth.