Michael Copps of the Federal Communications Commission had a lot to say about the importance of access to information and the Internet. But he remained tight-lipped on how and when the FCC would protect it.
Copps was part of a panel that spoke about network neutrality at the National Hispanic Cultural Center on Tuesday, Nov. 16. At the crux of the well-documented battle between Internet service providers, such as Comcast and Verizon, and public advocacy groups is how much control companies should have over content and bandwidth.
"Today the danger is that big business will put us on the road to the cannibalization, and the cable-ization, and the consolidation of broadband and the Internet," Copps said to a supportive crowd of more than 400. "And they've already made tremendous headway in their agenda."
The headway Copps talked about was evident in a D.C. court earlier this year. In April, the Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a 2008 decision. The FCC had ruled Comcast could not block peer-to-peer sharing on its broadband network. The court said that because the FCC had designated broadband as an information service rather than a telecommunications service in 2005, the commission did not have the power to regulate broadband providers.
At the hearing, Copps argued this could allow the big companies to filter the news sources their customers can access. He added that if companies control bandwidth, it could become nearly impossible for startups to succeed, creating an uncompetitive market run by the few and rich.
"Today the danger is that big business will put us on the road to the cannibalization, and the cable-ization, and the consolidation of broadband and the Internet."
FCC Commissioner Michael Copps
Copps said Hispanics and Native Americans should have a particular interest in this debate. He pointed to the diverse population of New Mexico, saying that it is difficult for minorities to be heard if they do not combat media conglomerates. "The bigger the media, the harder it is for diversity groups to be accurately represented—and to be a part of the action, and to participate in the media, to own stations and own Internet, and be active in the Internet sites."
Shortly after the court’s reversal of the FCC's decision, Chairman Julius Genachowski reacted by proposing a plan to Congress. In September, Congress dismissed the case, putting the decision back into the hands of the FCC.
The commission must first reclassify broadband service as a telecommunications service in order to pave the road for net neutrality. To do that, Genachowski needs to put the issue to a vote. Coincidentally, three of the FCC’s five commissioners—Mignon Clyburn, Copps and Genachowski—have publicly advocated net neutrality. So what's the hold up?
Commissioner Copps would not go into much detail as to why the FCC has not moved forward. "The chairman is in charge of deciding what the agenda's gonna be and what items are circulated when they are circulated,” Copps told the Alibi in an interview. "I am urging him to circulate this one as soon as possible, and that's about as much as I wanna say."
Op-ed pieces by Rob Pegoraro of the Washington Post and Tim Karr of nonprofit organization Free Press have laid the blame on Genachowski. Josh Silver, president of Free Press, went as far as saying that the chairman is "terrified of making a decision."
Copps was quick to deflect questions about Genachowski’s hesitance. He also could not offer an estimate on what kind of timetable the FCC was looking at for voting on net neutrality.
"I have no idea. That you have to ask the chairman's office," Copps said.
Chairman Genachowski was not available for comment when the Alibi contacted his office, but FCC spokesperson Jen Howard told us, "We're not commenting on timing."
At the hearing, panelist and state Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas brought up previous battles between capitalist conglomerates and public advocates. "There's railroad neutrality, there's public highway neutrality, there's telephone neutrality," he said. "There must be Internet neutrality in this nation, and we must fight for it tooth and nail."
About 30 members of the public testified at the hearing. Anthony Newkirk of Gila River Telecommunications, Inc. stressed the importance of a competitive market on reservations. "We need your help," Newkirk said. "We need to send a voice to Verizon and Google that we have choices," that "we have other services that we can go to."
Michaela Cadena is a single mother and the program coordinator for Young Women United, an Albuquerque women's advocacy group. She lives with her daughter in a packed household in the South Valley that’s shared with several family members. Because of the lack of places with public Internet in her area, Cadena and her family have been forced to pay a high price for a service that she sees as a necessity. "We have scrounged to pay for Internet in our home. At $68 a month, our Internet service is one of our highest bills and only affordable because we split it three ways," Cadena said. She added that the Internet was the only way her daughter had to connect with distant relatives. She concluded by offering this plea to Copps: "I ask you to please continue your work to reclassify Internet and pass strong net neutrality rules this year."
In the end, those in attendance testified toward the same goals—access, affordability and the free flow of information. Though he didn’t speak, one man handed out flyers against net neutrality before the hearing. Because the testimonies went over their allotted hour time slot, others who wanted to speak were given the option to have their statements video-recorded after the event.
As for Cadena's wish of net neutrality in 2010, Copps did not make it look like it would happen. He hinted that it might be on the FCC’s agenda in 2011. That was closest thing he gave to a timetable.
In summing up the Albuquerque forum, Copps made it clear that he had heard the public. "I have the impression that you all would like me to ask the chairman to do something," he said to a chorus of laughter.