Former FCC Commissioner Michael Copps talks net neutrality

Former FCC Commissioner Michael Copps addresses students at a forum titled "Media and Democracy: Monopolization and Consolidation of the U.S. Media Ecosystem." (Photo by Laura Cergol)

Former FCC Commissioner Michael Copps addresses students at a forum titled “Media and Democracy: Monopolization and Consolidation of the U.S. Media Ecosystem.” (Photo by Laura Cergol)

On Friday, November 7, former FCC Commissioner and media reform advocate Michael Copps visited the College to discuss the current state and the future of the “Open Internet”—a “principle of online fairness” that ensures everyone has equal access and equal opportunities to make their voice heard online. According to Copps, Internet access is no longer a modern convenience, but rather a necessity in the 21st century. However, it is going down the same road as every other mass medium toward increased gatekeeping by big money.

Before acting as Special Adviser to Common Cause’s Media and Democracy Reform Initiative, Copps served on the Federal Communications Commission for five years. He hoped to help open opportunities for entrepreneurship and innovation by bringing broadband to everyone. Instead, he saw consolidation of control of media content and carriers, such as the “Orwellian” 2011 Comcast-NBC merger. When media companies want to make big purchases, they must seek approval from the five FCC commissioners. Copps was the only one to vote against the Comcast-NBC merger.

“We should be in a golden age of the Internet,” Copps said, addressing a small audience of students, faculty, and community members in the Office of Admissions presentation room. Instead, he argued, the current debate over the regulation of Internet Service Providers like Comcast is “short-circuiting” the potential of digital technologies, and the lack of regulations in the meantime has severely damaged the diversity of content, viewpoints, and ownership.

Consolidation such as the Comcast-NBC merger and a new Comcast-Time Warner merger currently awaiting FCC approval is possible due to the classification of ISPs as information service providers, rather than as common carriers like cable and telephone providers. Without regulations placed on common carriers by Title II of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, ISPs could potentially deny service to less profitable areas, impose data caps and usage fees, block content, or provide “fast lanes” for higher-paying customers or content providers.

The FCC had some weak rules to impose network neutrality on ISPs, but a D.C. Circuit court decision in January threw out those rules. Copps explained that the court did not deny the FCC’s authority to regulate ISPs, but rather said that they went about it in the wrong way. He said the decision was “almost an invitation to do the right thing” and reclassify broadband under Title II, as 90% of the 3.8 million comments the FCC received from the public favored.

In light of last week’s election, Copps emphasized that net neutrality was not a partisan issue, but rather an American issue. “No infrastructure is more important in the 21st century than our communication infrastructure,” he said. President Obama expressed similar sentiments in a video and letter issued on Monday in support of net neutrality, asking the FCC to “recognize that for most Americans, the Internet has become an essential part of everyday communication and everyday life.”

The event on Friday was facilitated by the Department of Communications and the local nonprofit Media Reform SC. Copps said that grassroots organizations were essential to effecting media reform. Students were invited to attend meetings for Media Reform SC’s non-commercial radio station, Ohm Radio, on Monday evenings at 6:30 in ILA Hall to discuss local issues that may not be covered by the “Big 5” media conglomerates.

“What we need on broadband is a mission,” Copps said. In a question-and-answer session at the end of the talk, Copps said that anything with public support would become a political issue. He urged everyone to make net neutrality a top priority, because “your first issue won’t go anywhere without media.”

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