The Silence of the Bought

Benton Foundation |

Michael J. Copps
Michael Copps

The Capitol grounds came alive last week as Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts and Congressman Mike Doyle of Pennsylvania convened an energy-filled rally in support of over-turning the FCC’s recent decision to abolish the rules providing for net neutrality and an open internet.   Getting these rules back in force will be a monumental battle fought on many fronts.  This rally’s purpose was focused on finding one additional U.S. Senator to support a Congressional override of the FCC’s action.  Specifically, Markey and Doyle are invoking the Congressional Review Act (CRA), a fast-track legislative vehicle that allows Congress to authorize a resolution of disapproval of agency regulatory actions.  Fifty Senators have signed on, including Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine.  With all the Democrats in support, just one more GOP Senator would ensure Senate passage of the resolution of disapproval.

Dozens of Senators and Congressmen spoke at the rally.  Representatives from many organizations attended.  And I had an opportunity to speak, too.  I remarked how ridiculous it is that, with more than 70% of the American people supporting strong net neutrality rules, only one GOP Senator has signed on to support disapproval by the Congress.  Talk about disconnect between Washington, DC and the rest of the country! 

I’ll predict this: candidates running for re-election this year will lose a lot of votes by opposing net neutrality and an open internet.  They already have more than enough baggage to carry without riding a third rail that leads to involuntary early retirement.

This issue of net neutrality is such a no-brainer.  And we don’t have to drill down very far to understand that the only reason it is an issue at all inside DC’s notorious Beltway is the outrageous influence of the big Internet Service Provider gate-keepers.  Their objective is monopoly markets for both the distribution of broadband internet and the content that runs on their wires, fibers, and cables.  Every day they are better positioned to achieve their goal.  They wield evermore consolidated power, they vanquish competitors, and they have an abundance of resources to unduly influence government policy.  They want all public interest protections out of the way.  And they pour bags of money into lobbying and political campaigns to achieve their ends.

Absent their power and money, net neutrality would not be an issue today.  Good rules, such as those put in place by the FCC in 2015, would have been on the books many years earlier.  We would have been spared a ridiculous years-long battle about whether the internet should be given special exemption from the consumer protections our telecommunications systems have had to provide for some 85 years.  We would have been spared the heavy-handed audacity of the current FCC majority in axing every rule that stands in the way of the monopolists’ fondest dreams.  And, very importantly, we would allow the internet to be the internet—a place where we can all go online on equal terms, wherein we can go where we want to go, express our views without fear of gate-keeper push-back, organize to achieve our goals, and advance our diversity and our democracy.  Wasn’t that the whole idea behind the internet in the first place?   Denying that vision, like the huge ISPs want to do, is consigning the internet to a future diametrically opposed to the impulse that created it.  That’s a tragedy of history.

Our task is to make the vision live.  It’s a huge fight, uphill against powerful interests, but we will fight on many fronts. 

Senate approval of the CRA resolution would constitute a major step forward.  An even tougher battle would then ensue in the House.  Some people call that latter battle hopeless, but I think even those who favor a closed internet will think twice before that issue would come up for a House vote—probably in the summer, maybe even in the fall before elections.  That’s when politicians must do their most nimble tightrope walking.

The battle will be fought on other fronts, too.  There will be court cases to decide whether the FCC’s elimination of net neutrality was arbitrary and capricious.  Personally I don’t see how the courts could view the Commission’s decision as anything but arbitrary and capricious.  I think, I hope, the courts will agree.  There will be cases brought by a multitude of groups, from state attorneys-general (23 of them already), consumer groups, public interest organizations, and adversely-affected businesses.  Additionally, a number of states are considering passage of state laws to ensure net neutrality, efforts that the three-person FCC majority believes it has pre-empted.  (Strange, isn’t it, that these self-described conservative commissioners, who for years have argued against excessive federal action, are now touting federal preemption because they find themselves in power?  So much for consistency of thought.)  On another front, governors in at least five states have issued executive orders that ISPs wishing to obtain contracts to do business with the state must abide by net neutrality rules.  It seems to me they have the clear right to do this, but here again the special interests will be fighting mightily.

The big ISP gate-keepers may have bought the silence of Congress, but they cannot buy the silence of the people.  We know there is overwhelming popular support for an open internet with strong net neutrality rules.  But we have to demonstrate this support and the power behind it.  We must make our voices heard.  Contacting Congress now on the CRA is vital—your Senators, of course, but your House members, too.  Tell them your vote in the next election depends on their vote now to restore net neutrality. 

Tell them also that this has become the free speech issue of our time, and if they can’t stand up for free speech on the internet, they’re not standing up for you, our country, and democracy itself.

Talk with elected officials at their town meetings and other gatherings.   Mobilize your families, friends, colleagues, community leaders.  It’s easier than you think.  Kids are writing reports on net neutrality in school.  During a medical visit I had a week or so ago, my doctor volunteered that his daughter in high school was researching the topic.  So is one of my grandsons.  People get this—we just need to make sure our representatives get it, too. 

Hope abides, but action delivers.


Michael Copps served as a commissioner on the Federal Communications Commission from May 2001 to December 2011 and was the FCC's Acting Chairman from January to June 2009. His years at the Commission have been highlighted by his strong defense of "the public interest"; outreach to what he calls "non-traditional stakeholders" in the decisions of the FCC, particularly minorities, Native Americans and the various disabilities communities; and actions to stem the tide of what he regards as excessive consolidation in the nation's media and telecommunications industries. In 2012, former Commissioner Copps joined Common Cause to lead its Media and Democracy Reform Initiative. Common Cause is a nonpartisan, nonprofit advocacy organization founded in 1970 by John Gardner as a vehicle for citizens to make their voices heard in the political process and to hold their elected leaders accountable to the public interest.

Benton believes that communications policy—rooted in the values of access, equity, and diversity—has the power to deliver new opportunities and strengthen communities to bridge our divides. Communications-related Headlines is the only free, reliable, and non-partisan daily digest that curates and distributes news related to universal broadband, while connecting communications, democracy, and public interest issues.


By Michael Copps.