Janine Jackson interviewed Tim Karr about the net neutrality fight for the December 21, 2018, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript. MP3 Link
Ajit Pai (photo: FCC)
Janine Jackson: When last we checked on the FCC, agency chair and former Verizon lawyer Ajit Pai was admitting what everyone already knew: that he straight-up lied when he told lawmakers that public comments in favor of net neutrality couldn’t get through because the FCC was suffering an online attack that tied up their servers. In fact, the agency’s Republican majority simply overrode clearly stated public support for net neutrality rules in their decision to repeal them.
That Pai has an agenda, to allow telecommunication industry titans to basically write policy to their liking, is obvious; whether he’ll be able to turn a federal agency tasked with representing the public interest so thoroughly against that purpose is what’s being contested, including by our next guest. Timothy Karr is senior director of strategy and communications at the group Free Press. He joins us now by phone from New Jersey. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Tim Karr.
Timothy Karr: Hi, Janine. How are you?
JJ: I’m very well. Well, listeners understand net neutrality as the rules that seek to keep the internet a more or less level playing field, and in so doing, make possible a great deal of person-to-person organizing and communication. We saw the repeal, over the overwhelming opposition of internet users. And then we saw some pushback to the repeal at state and municipal levels.
Now we’ve got a new Congress. What’s the state of play on net neutrality?
TK: Well, the state of play is uncertain. As you mentioned, in 2017, the chairman Ajit Pai, who was appointed by President Trump, repealed the net neutrality protections that we won in 2015, and that happened at the end of 2017.
So 2018 was really a year where we’re trying to get these rights back, we’re trying to protect everyone’s right to go online and connect with whomever they want to who’s online. And in order for us to do that, we have to restore the Federal Communications Commission’s authority, under a somewhat arcane rule called Title II of the Communications Act, that allows them to treat internet service providers as these conduits, common carrier conduits, that cannot block or throttle or in any way deprioritize online content that people want to see.
So it’s been a long fight. The good news is that we won what’s called a resolution of disapproval in the Senate in May; we had a majority of senators vote to throw out the rules. That process is now switched to the House, which has almost closed its session for the year, where we have more than 180 members who signed on to this resolution. So it’s an ongoing process. We’ve managed to get more people in Congress, more of our elected representatives and lawmakers, on the record in support of net neutrality than we have in any time in the history of this issue. So there’s momentum, and it’s good momentum that will lead us into a new Congress, where we have even more champions of net neutrality. So we’re looking ahead to 2019 with a great measure of optimism.
JJ: Right. Well, I got something…what did I see…from the Heartland Institute, I think, that told me that “none of the liberal lies came true.” In other words, net neutrality was repealed, and look, nothing negative happened, so what’s the big deal?
TK: Well, for one, we think that the internet service providers have been on their best behavior, because they know there’s an effort to put these rules back in place. But even given that, there have been instances where Sprint has throttled access to Skype, where we’ve seen them starting to make inroads into this kind of two-tiered internet that we’ve been warning about, where they actually give prioritizations to the sites and services that they like, and the rest of us lose that choice.
This is something that these very large phone and cable companies—companies like AT&T and Comcast and Verizon—have wanted to do for more than a decade now, because they saw that the future of the media was the internet. And the future of internet media was video. And they wanted really to control the way video streaming is used online, to really become the gatekeepers of the future of television, just like large media companies have been the gatekeepers to the past of television, when you had a very few conglomerates controlling what went on television. So they are very aggressively moving into the space, with the hope that absent net neutrality rules, they can control what we watch on the internet as well.
JJ: We have to wonder why industry would fight so hard for something that wasn’t going to make any difference. Why would they fight so hard to get rid of these rules if their repeal would have actually no impact on what they do?
Well, the group MapLight released research showing how two telecom trade groups, CTIA, who has members including AT&T and Comcast and Verizon, and the Internet and Television Association, that they gave more than $3 million to groups like ALEC, the “bill mill” that pushed for net neutrality’s repeal. It seems like following the money is as important a rule here as on any other issue.
Tim Karr: “We’re talking about millions and millions of dollars that have gone from the phone and cable lobby to elected representatives to lobbyists to lawyers, to try to get net neutrality off the books.”
TK: Yeah, and that’s just the money that we know about, right? Because you have to report lobbying expenditures, because you have to report campaign contributions to federally elected officials, we do have a paper trail. And even looking at that, we’re talking about millions and millions of dollars that have gone from the phone and cable lobby to elected representatives to lobbyists to lawyers, to try to get net neutrality off the books.
There’s a whole other dark economy there that we don’t know as much about. And those are the kind of contributions that are made to PACs, the kind of contributions that are made to PR firms and think tanks. And there’s a whole slew of think tanks, for example, in Washington, DC, that generate these reports on net neutrality, that make up these sorts of lies that, you know, net neutrality has hampered investment, that it’s heavy-handed government regulation of the internet, both of which are untrue.
But you give money to think tanks to generate reports, and then someone like Chairman Ajit Pai, who’s looking for evidence to support his decision to repeal net neutrality, points to a report by an organization like the American Enterprise Institute, and says, “See, proof that I was right.”
And this is all part of this influence economy, that is controlled by these very powerful corporations—again, companies like AT&T and Verizon—who create this kind of false reality around net neutrality inside Washington, DC, when people outside of the Beltway—in overwhelming numbers, and there are a number of polls out there that show Democrats, Republicans, registered voters, registered independents, all by strong majorities—support keeping the net neutrality rules.
So there’s a disconnect between what’s going on in Washington, DC, where rulemakers are held captive to this industry, and what the people of the country actually want. So as we go towards a new Congress, we’re hopeful that with some of the new people that were elected in November, we’ll gain even more traction on Capitol Hill to put in place legislation that will restore these net neutrality rules.
JJ: Speaking of that disconnect, there’s a new Communications Marketplace Report that Karl Bode, I was reading, says, if you read it, it suggests that broadband “is awash with vibrant competition.” And it just sounds so strange for those of us who think, “Well, wait, I only have Comcast, you know, I only have one option.” Are we really on different planets? How can the FCC be putting out information that says that we really have a competitive field when it comes to broadband?
TK: There’s a number of ways that they do that. When they talk about broadband, sometimes they like to include wireless connectivity options; but anybody who has a cell phone and even a 5G connection knows that you can’t replicate a high-speed internet connection that you have in your home through your cell phone device. And another way that the FCC has tried to make broadband seem more plentiful is by lowering the standards. This lowering the speeds for uploads and downloads, so that as they create a slower standard for broadband, it allows them to even include some internet service providers that have pretty crappy, slow services as broadband providers.
But you’re right. At the end of the day, the type of broadband that people want, there are very few choices in the United States. And it’s driven prices higher than any other developed country around the world. We paid more for wireless internet connections, for landline internet connections, than most any other country in the world. So that’s what happens when you have a very small number of companies controlling the industry. And in addition to controlling the industry, controlling the policy-making process.
JJ: Well, you touched on it earlier. I know Free Press put out a list of positive moments from the year. There are good things happening, and I think we have to remember that media organizing, like any organizing, is a marathon and not a sprint, and there’s work that’s going on. What would you have folks think about, who are just surveying the the media landscape at the moment? What kinds of things is Free Press up to?
TK: The things that we’re doing to get net neutrality back is that we’re actually suing the FCC. We’re challenging its decision to reverse this definition of broadband, to reverse the authority that it had over broadband. So that’s a court case that’s going to be heard in the US Court of Appeals for the DC circuit on February 1. We’re very confident that we have a strong legal argument to make that would reverse this net neutrality decision.
The FCC is also now under investigation. There’s an investigation into a number of fake comments that were filed in the net neutrality proceeding; when the FCC made this decision in 2017, they opened up what they call a docket for public comments, and there are nearly 10 million comments that appear to be faked.
There’s an investigation into whether that was—and that’s illegal activity—whether that crime was committed by people working at the behest of the phone and cable lobby. There’s also been a lot of questions about the FCC chairman’s reluctance to open up the docket to investigators and reporters who want to figure out who are the culprits behind this decision. So there’s some questions about the process itself.
And you know, again, I mentioned Congress; we have increasing bipartisan support all around the country, but we also have a number of new members of Congress who campaigned with net neutrality as an issue and won, who are looking to doing something legislatively in 2019. You could see something as early as spring, where we have legislation that would put a strong legal standard for net neutrality. And given the new composition of Congress, and given the bipartisan nature, at least in the grassroots level, of support for net neutrality, we’re also hopeful that we can get these protections back through legislative means.
JJ: All right then, we’ll keep our eyes on it. We’ve been speaking with Tim Karr, senior director of strategy and communications at Free Press. You can find them and their work online at FreePress.net. Tim Karr, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.
TK: My pleasure.