Michael Powell is the son of Gen. Colin Powell. The elder Powell knows a thing or two about war. He famously presented the case for invading Iraq to the United Nations, on Feb. 5, 2003, based on faulty evidence of weapons of mass destruction. He calls that speech a painful “blot” on his record. So it is especially surprising when his son threatens “World War III” on the Obama administration.
Michael Powell is the president of the NCTA, the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, which is the cable industry’s largest lobbying group. He is also the former chairperson of the FCC, the Federal Communications Commission. His target: net neutrality. The battleground is in Washington, D.C., inside the FCC’s nondescript headquarters. The largest Internet service providers — companies like Comcast, Time Warner Cable, AT&T and Verizon — are joining forces to kill net neutrality. Millions of citizens, along with thousands of organizations, companies, artists and investors, are trying to save it.
What is net neutrality? It’s the fundamental notion that anyone on the Web can reach anyone else, that users can just as easily access a small website launched in a garage as they can access major Internet portals like Google or Yahoo. Net neutrality is the Internet’s protection against discrimination. So why would these giant Internet Service Providers want to eliminate such a good thing? Greed. The largest ISPs make massive profits already. But if they are allowed to create a multitiered Internet, with some content providers paying extra to have their websites or Web applications load faster, then they can squeeze out extra profit. Remember, the users are already paying for Internet access. Now companies like Comcast want to charge people at the other end of the Internet connection, raking in billions of dollars from both the Internet user and the Internet content provider.
If net neutrality is eliminated, then large, established content providers with ample cash will buy access to a privileged “fast lane” on the Internet. Smaller websites and new applications will not have the same access, and will be stuck in the “slow lane.” The era of lean start-ups driving innovation will come screeching to a halt. Don’t look for any more high-tech companies founded in dorm rooms. Those sites will take longer to load than those offered by the big companies.
The FCC is a classic “captured” regulatory agency, featuring a revolving door with the very industries it is supposed to regulate. The current FCC chairperson, appointed by President Barack Obama, is Tom Wheeler, who was formerly the head of the NCTA and later ran the wireless industry’s lobbying organization. Tom Wheeler and Michael Powell have basically switched places with one another. Sadly, they both do the same job, representing the interests of big business.
It was under Michael Powell that the broadband business was labeled an “information service” by the FCC, limiting the extent that the industry could be regulated. It is what he called in his recent keynote speech at the NCTA annual meeting, a “light regulatory touch.” Powell’s soaring rhetoric there fails the laugh test, though. Broadband service in the United States, on average, is far slower than many other countries’, and far more costly.
Activists want the FCC to reclassify broadband as a public utility, like telephone service. Imagine if the phone company were allowed to downgrade the quality of your phone call, because you didn’t pay for the premium service. Or imagine if the water coming out of your tap was less clean than water at a neighbor’s house, because they pay for the premium water. These utilities are regulated. People get the same service, without discrimination.
Last January, a federal court threw out the FCC’s “Open Internet” rules, saying that the FCC has the authority to regulate the Internet, but that its rules didn’t make sense. By properly classifying Internet service as a utility, the FCC can legally and sensibly regulate it.
Close to 2 million people have weighed in already in favor of net neutrality, calling for the reclassification of Internet service. It is that act that Michael Powell said would provoke “World War III.” Michael Powell may threaten a policy war, but he should be careful what he wishes for. As chair of the FCC back in 2003, he led an effort to allow more media consolidation, which provoked a massive public backlash. Eventually, the lax rules he proposed were defeated. Congress learned a lesson with the protests against Internet regulatory laws called SOPA and PIPA. The outcry was global and unrelenting.
Now the focus is on the FCC. Tom Wheeler has a chance to listen to millions of concerned citizens, and to correct the errors of the past. Or he can do the bidding of Michael Powell and his army of lobbyists. If he does that, he, too, will have an enduring blot on his record.
Amy Goodman is the host of “Democracy Now!,” a daily international TV/radio news hour airing on more than 1,200 stations in North America. She is the co-author of “The Silenced Majority,” a New York Times best-seller.