Please, FCC: Don’t Give up on Net Neutrality

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The draft you feel is from the opening at the bottom of the tent—there, right there where the camel’s nose has lifted it.

Tom Wheeler FCC
FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler

Consider that the camel belongs to big internet service providers, and that he’s nuzzling under the canvas with the encouragement of the Federal Communications Commission  (FCC) and its chairman, Tom Wheeler, who used to lobby for those same big companies.

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Wheeler has some cover in that the two Republican members of the five-member commission want to go much farther even than he does, and abandon any responsibility for maintaining net neutrality. Wheeler is free to say he’s trying to preserve net neutrality while, in fact, he’s killing it.

What’s going on reminds me of the time I served on a school board and took a tour of parts of the district I served where, apparently, we’d be needing to build some schools. I muttered something about urban sprawl and was promptly, archly informed that this was not an issue: it’s not sprawl if the growth is planned. In other words, if all you’re doing is sprawling, it’s not sprawl, which is a bad thing. It’s growth, which is a good thing.

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Wheeler’s FCC is sprawling all over the open internet, but defining the sprawl away by calling a tiered system neutral. It may be complicated, but nobody is fooled. Here, in a nutshell, is what Wheeler has arranged:

His commission, which could have voted to kill tiered systems of fees, voted instead, at Wheeler’s urging, to open public debate on a proposal “dedicated to protecting and preserving an open internet,” in his words. The proposal would allow big providers—such as the ones he used to represent on Capitol Hill—to create special “fast lanes” on the internet for big customers, using lots of bandwidth, and paying higher fees than others. The FCC’s hairsplitting on the issue allows them to say they prohibit the creation of “slow lanes” for regular customers.

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This is, patently and shamelessly, a distinction without a difference. I mean, really: how can you do the one without the other? If you want to charge people more for access to the content they want—or that you don’t want them to have—then put it in the lane that is, well, not the fast one, so that they’ll want it in the fast one, so they’ll have to pay more for it. Which they won’t.

Let’s not just condemn Wheeler, though. He’s trying to navigate some terribly tricky legal waters, and he seems to hope that his convoluted approach, built on at least three arcane legal theories, will help him to enforce a semblance of net neutrality even after the courts have ruled that the FCC has been overreaching in trying to do just that.

Press Hat
Net Neutrality would
protect the press.

Normally I write in the third person, but sometimes political issues are intensely personal. What the Federal Communications Commission is doing, just now, is that way for me: personal, as well as critically important for the institutions and conventions I treasure most. Those institutions and conventions include the Republic and the free press on which its survival depends.

That term “press” has been archaic for about 100 years, because we’ve had broadcast technology for that long. Now we have cable, satellite and internet communications. The FCC is still relying on the Communications Act of 1934 to regulate activities on the internet, which wouldn’t come along for 60 years after its passage. The law, then, is hopelessly behind the technology, and we cannot look to Congress to fix it, because its members are in the thrall (read on the payroll) of Verizon, Comcast, et al., who want the fast and slow lanes. That’s why the last two net neutrality cases went to court.

So why does all this matter so much to me, so personally, so viscerally? Here’s my story:

My first and only true professional love was journalism. I regard it as the first, 14-year period in a full career of service to the public. In fact, I see it as the time when I made my most important contributions to society, just by reporting the news as factually and impartially as I could. Without that kind of journalism, and a readership for it, there is no hope whatsoever for the American form of democracy.

I made my way through college working at a little newspaper, graduating to city journalism and a statewide paper and political reportage. In all, I worked for four papers, two owned by families as their single enterprises, two operated as pieces of chains. There is a marked difference.

When I finished a career into which I had stumbled, after leaving the press for, I thought, a few months or years, I wanted to write again. I had four decades of experience, and something to say. To be honest, I also wanted in some part to make up for the indiscretions, errors, naivete and brashness of some of my youthful work.

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But newspapers weren’t there to go back to. Not the great newspapers of my youth, only chain operations and weak, pale imitations of the old ways.

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newspaper readership trends
Newspaper readership trends
(Click to enlarge.)

There was the internet. Fortunately, I didn’t have to make any money. I started a blog, it got noticed, and wound up here, working for The Clyde Fitch Report. I have no idea how many people read it, but I know they are serious people. This is what I want to do. I know, with the stable of writers we have, that we will become as popular as I think we are important.

If, that is, access to content like this is on a par with access to what Verizon and Comcast and Time Warner want you to see. Only if access is equal. Promotional capacities are hardly on a par, but at least it is possible to get your stuff out there, and if your stuff is good, eventually someone will read it. That’s the way it works.

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If it does not work that way, here’s what happens: Amazon and Facebook do great. Startups, which those companies once were, will have a very hard time, and the web will become a very stale place—but a more expensive one for consumers. People like me will have nowhere to publish. I mean, I could put an ad in JournalismJobs reading, “White liberal columnist, out of newspapers for 35 years, seeks work in high-readership newspaper.” Yeah.

That’s my story.  But it really is not about me; I’m just an example. Perhaps Jonathan Portis will forgive my telling a story about him. Thirty years ago, more or less, we were both laboring at the Memphis newspaper, which was a sorry Scripps-Howard outfit, and we were both veterans of the great and venerable Arkansas Gazette, now long dead and still bitterly mourned. Over a beer, I asked him why he tortured himself at The Commercial Appeal. He said, “Because I know how it’s supposed to be done.”

Well, I know how it’s supposed to be done. I’ve been away, but I’m trying so very hard to do it. I don’t sweat and bleed over the keyboard every week or two for the glory of it, of which there is none. I do it because, as I mentioned, I have something to say. Agree or disagree, I don’t care, but I can bring you some facts and a thoroughly considered point of view on things that are important. I so hope the FCC does not kill this.