Should Two Trump Two Million?

On May 18, I had the privilege of joining a people’s protest outside Federal Communications Commission (FCC) headquarters in Washington, DC. Inside on that same morning, two intransigent and backward-looking commissioners (they constitute the FCC majority) announced their intention to dismantle the good and court-approved network neutrality rules put in place by the previous FCC. Their intention is to close the open internet. Meanwhile more than 2,000,000 Americans had already contacted the Commission directly, the overwhelming majority seeking to keep the net neutrality rules and guarantee an internet that serves us all rather than kowtow to big cable and bloated telecom. In the May 18 match-up, 2 trumped 2,000,000, and the semi-final proposal was circulated, with final approval likely late this summer or early fall. Unless even more of us get involved.

It felt so completely eerie standing outside the FCC after having fought inside for nearly a dozen years to establish net neutrality rules and to make the internet the dynamic tool of openness, free speech, and democracy that it should and must yet be.

It was no secret this day was coming as soon as Ajit Pai was chosen as the new FCC Chairman by President Trump. He and Commissioner Michael O’Rielly share the business dogmas of the big telecom and cable companies, and both hold fast to political and economic ideologies that have long-since passed their time—if ever there was such a time. It’s been over a hundred years since our country decided we could no longer afford the untrammeled monopolies of the Gilded Age, whereupon we put in place public interest legislation and oversight agencies to regulate, and even break up, such business combinations.

Business, reactionary Presidents and Congresses, and, all-too-often, compliant courts, did everything they could to retard the progress that twentieth century reformers were making. Now, with the Trump Administration, the idea is not just to retard progress; it is to kill it. This observation demands no amplification because every official statement, every day, underlines the commitment of this Administration to stop the march of history.

This, too, will pass—but very possibly not in time. We cannot keep shooting ourselves in the foot if we are to avoid crippling the country beyond repair. Find an index of national well-being—standard-of-living, extent of homelessness, affordability of healthcare, life expectancy, infant mortality, educational attainment, civic involvement, and even the extent of democracy—and you find your country and mine far down the rankings of nations.

Some argue we must wait for inspired leadership, a new Franklin Roosevelt. That would be nice, but FDR sprang from the ashes of depression, a quarter of the labor force unemployed, and from a dozen years of government that endorsed the same kind of public policy dismantlement that the Trump Administration and its appointees see as their only job.

All this hits hard at our communications ecosystem. In fact, it hits harder here than just about any place else. That’s because so much rides on communications. For starters, an informed electorate. All of our great leaders -- going back to Washington, Jefferson, and Madison -- understood this. It is why they built postal roads and subsidized the mailing of newspapers throughout our young republic. They wanted to do whatever they could so that citizens would be sufficiently well-informed to make intelligent decisions about the future of our young nation’s experiment in self-government. The media ecosystem was primitive, but these giants worked to make the most of what we had.

Fast forward 225 years. New technologies have created media with the potential to inform us far beyond the wildest dreams of our forebears. With the internet, we are capable of having a town square of democracy paved with broadband bricks. But we don’t. Yes, some in the national press have managed to break important stories about Trump & Company’s misconduct in office, in the face of withering criticism—and even incitement to violence—by the Commander-In-Chief. But this kind of investigative digging is all too rare. And, what’s worse, Big Media have gobbled up outlets across the country and fired legions of journalists who could be doing a lot more digging. The “breaking news” stories we see on national news every night are too often regurgitations of yesterday’s breaking news, and local community news has long since been shoved aside and replaced by “if it bleeds, it leads,” sports, and the weather.

Some among us thought the internet would fix all this. It was different from traditional media and so dynamic that it was somehow exempt from the laws of economics. It guaranteed openness forever because power was at the edge (us) and not at the center (broadband distributors and their friends). Wrong. The internet went down the same road as radio, TV, and cable. The internet distributors began producing their own content, giving themselves bottleneck control and virtual monopolies in markets across the land. Control passed to the center. Gate-keeping was their goal. It still is.

The network neutrality rules issued in 2015 by the FCC under previous Chairman Tom Wheeler arrived not a moment too soon. They demanded that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) like Comcast, Verizon, and AT&T could not block or throttle content; could not keep users from accessing the content of their choice or running the applications they wanted; and the ISPs were prohibited from favoring their own content or that of their affiliates and partners over that of innovative competitors. Fast lanes for the well-heeled and well-connected (pun intended) and slow lanes for the rest of us. And, of course, it cost consumers more every year.

Net neutrality is pretty basic, right? Internet 101 rules of the road. They are a clear prerequisite for an open internet. The rules don’t address all of the challenges of the fast-developing internet world, to be sure, but they are its essential foundation. Lots of other countries have similar rules; and others, thinking to build on our example, are in the process of developing theirs. (If the U.S. steps back, these other countries may well step back, too. That would be nice for global communications companies, but not so great for the worldwide web.)

The myriad challenges we face at home and abroad are serious and threatening. They can be met only by informed citizens. No real reform will come to this land of ours unless citizens themselves demand it—and fight for it. Enlightened change can only come from where it has always come—grassroots America. You and me. Don’t let two commissioners in Washington extinguish the open internet. Send your comments to the FCC. It is really important that you add your voice to the millions who have already spoken out. Tell the FCC -- and Congress, too -- that the internet isn’t supposed to take advantage of us, but that We, the People are supposed to be taking advantage of its awesome democratic potential.

By Michael Copps.