Where The Rubber Meets The Road

Benton Foundation

Michael Copps
Mike Copps    

This is the year, friends.  The year when the battle for an Open Internet pits the three self-proclaimed wise men of the Federal Communications Commission against an overwhelming majority of the American people.  Every index I have seen—be it popular poll, volume of pleas to Congress, or expressions of anger toward the FCC—makes it crystal clear that we the people want an open internet and an end to ever-increasing monopoly control of our telecom and media markets.  Most Americans would agree with the great Justice Louis Brandeis: “We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.”  Nowhere is this so true as in the communications infrastructure upon which our civic dialogue depends.

When government itself aids and abets this corporate grab for power, fueled by the outrageous money and the Washington influence of the companies themselves, it is time to call a halt. That’s what 2018 must be all about.

The year just past will go down in history as the worst ever for official communications policy.  In addition to its arbitrary and capricious upending of network neutrality and its opening of the portals to even more media consolidation, the FCC majority took destructive strides backward by limiting the Lifeline program that helps bring broadband to everyone, threatening the E-Rate which delivers high-speed internet to our schools and libraries, cooperating with Congress to abolish a meaningful FCC role in the protection of consumer privacy, and much, much more—all designed to eliminate public interest oversight and, indeed, perhaps eliminate the FCC itself.  A two-person FCC majority initiated many of these new policy directions, and now a third GOP commissioner has joined the ranks. Commissioners Mignon Clyburn and Jessica Rosenworcel fight valiantly to contain the damage and advocate the public interest, but they need our help—and lots of it.

I am in shock at the audacity of the three majority commissioners who put the agency into total reverse across the whole gamut of FCC responsibility.  They have wreaked havoc on both the process and the substance that they inherited when they took over the FCC less than a year ago.  While “chairman-itis” is no stranger to the FCC, nothing has approached the current chairman’s consolidation of power in his office.  In reality, he is running a one-person agency.  While he would tell you that he is a conservative and mightily concerned with due process and public discussion, his reversal of a well-reasoned and court-approved net neutrality regime smacks of nothing so much as arbitrary and capricious.  The rules put in place in 2015 resulted from an expert analysis of a much-changed industry and marketplace.  The revocation of net neutrality passed at the close of 2017 resulted from a lack of reasoned analysis and an ideology that any court should disdain. 

The same applies to Chairman Pai’s assault on independent media.  Rules stretching back more than a generation were eliminated with no credible effort to explain why the public interest no longer mattered.   Indeed, even as the Chairman said he would take a “weed-whacker” to FCC rules, he disinterred and brought back to life a rule that allowed television giants to dramatically undercount their audience reach. That means the big guys can buy even more stations. Result: less local and community news and information, fewer newsrooms and real journalists, and still more infotainment and opinion-mongering masquerading as the dialogue democracy must have.

As 2018 begins, let us disenthrall ourselves from notions of defeat or the futility of sustained and concerted citizen action. These matters are too important, and we have fought too long for the common good, to surrender now. Our strategy must be across-the-board.

Darkest Hour,” the Winston Churchill movie playing to large audiences this week, reminds us of what an all-fronts battle looks like.  As Churchill vowed to fight on the seas and oceans, on the beaches and landing grounds, in the hills and in the streets, we must come together to fight in the courts, in the Congress, and—most important of all—in every village, town, and city across the land.

No one can predict how courts will decide on, for example, net neutrality. To me it seems an easy call. Rules affecting one-sixth of our economy—not to mention the public interest—cannot be reversed at every shift in the political winds, absent any compelling need. Were I an FCC lawyer, I would blush in embarrassment if I had to peddle the FCC majority’s argument that we should discard the reasoned net neutrality decision already upheld by the court. 

No one can predict Congress, either.  I know; I used to work there.  The most effective check on those in Congress who wish to undermine both the FCC and net neutrality (see Rep. Blackburn’s misguided “compromise” net neutrality legislative proposal) is to let its Members—all its Members—know that such action is opposed by you and by most Americans.  I think Congress may find this an issue it doesn’t need to add to the baggage that candidates already are carrying into their 2018 campaigns.  But that depends on you and me.

So, yes, it all comes back to us. Start by realizing this is not just another year in communications. It is, I am convinced, the most critical year ever. Chairman Pai is on a tear to eliminate government oversight where it really matters, and his over-the-top confidence in his own judgment exceeds that of any FCC chair I can recall. I’m sure he is congratulating himself right now for perhaps being Donald Trump’s most effective “deconstructer of the administrative state.”  That may play well in the White House, but not across America. Truth be told, a lot of people who voted for Trump didn’t do so because they like higher cable and broadband rates, a gate-keeper internet, monopoly media markets, or assaults on consumer privacy protections. Too bad Trump and Pai don’t get this. 

An open internet and media that truly inform citizens with real news and information are essential to successful self-government.  Not desirable for self-government.  Essential.  In the final analysis, the future of the internet and media must be decided by each of us. The new year beckons, indeed demands, our proactive involvement to get this right. 

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.