The fight to clean up our financial system is just one of the battles being duked out between big money and the public interest. Here's another: The fight over control of the Internet. This is crucial to every other fight between corporate and public America. At stake right now is what's called "net neutrality." Essentially that means the Web should remain a small "d" democratic forum for all comers open and available to everyone.
The big media companies that provide broadband for the Internet don't like that notion. They want the power to censor Internet content they don't like. And they want toll booths on the web so they can charge more for the privilege of driving in the fast lanes. You can learn more by going to our website at pbs.org/moyers. We'll link you to a documentary special we produced four years ago called "Net at Risk."
Back in 2007, shortly after that report aired, "The Associated Press" reported that Comcast, the nation's largest cable provider, was manipulating the speed of web traffic and discriminating against certain customers. The Federal Communications Commission told Comcast to stop it. Comcast argued back that the commission had no business telling it how to manage network traffic. Now a federal court of appeals has come down on Comcast's side, ruling that The FCC has limited authority to regulate the Internet.
At issue is whether the Internet is a medium of communications like the others the FCC has historically regulated, or just an information service beyond most government oversight. Advocates of net neutrality argue that if the FCC simply reclassifies broadband as a "communications service" the commission will have the authority it needs to enforce an open Internet. With me now is Michael Copps, who is serving his second five-year term as an FCC commissioner. This one-time professor of history, influential Senate staffer and Assistant Secretary of Commerce is an outspoken advocate for an open Internet and a staunch opponent of media conglomeration. He just may be the most knowledgeable fellow in Washington on how communication's policy affects you and me.
Welcome, Commissioner Copps, back to the JOURNAL.
MICHAEL COPPS: Thank you for having me back.
So let's start with some clarity of terms. What does net neutrality mean to you?
MICHAEL COPPS: Well, it's kind of an inelegant term for the need that we have to keep the most transformative technology that we have had, this is broadband and the Internet, I think more transformative than anything since the printing press. How do we make sure that it achieves its promise and potential for the average American citizen?
Our future is going to ride on broadband. How we get a job is going to ride on broadband. How we take care of our health. How we educate ourselves about our responsibilities as citizens. This all depends upon being able to go where you want to go on that Internet, to run the applications that you want to run, to attach the devices, to know what's going on. That's what net neutrality is all about.
And it's absolutely imperative that we have a place, that we have a venue to go to, to make sure that that Internet is kept open. You have a choice. I mean, you can say do we want our cable company or our telephone company to handle all of this? Or do we want to make sure that the government has some oversight here? That's our decision to make as a people, as citizens. Who's going to control this ultimately? Who's going to make sure this isn't about regulating the Internet, this is making sure that the Internet is kept open and that others don't close the doors and become gatekeepers or the keepers of those tollbooths that you talked about before.
So is that metaphor apt? I mean, is it realistic that Comcast and AT&T and Verizon want to set up a price system so that, if you've got more money, you get there and go faster than those if you don't have money? Is that crude?
MICHAEL COPPS: You know I think what history tells us is that, if you're a business, and you have the technical capacity to advance yourself by short changing somebody else, or disadvantaging somebody else and you have a financial incentive to do that, somebody's going to try.
Now, that doesn't mean that I'm here blasting every company or every business executive that's out there. But somebody's going to try. And it's the bad apples that you've got to protect against
And your concern is that these big telecommunications agencies can monopolize the traffic that gets on the Internet? Or at least the speed--
MICHAEL COPPS: Yes.
At which they we travel?
MICHAEL COPPS: Absolutely. But what does it mean, practically, then that the federal appeals court said to the FCC, which has regulated telephones, radio, television, "You can't touch"-- in effect, "You can't touch broadband. You can't touch the Net."
MICHAEL COPPS: Well, some people are saying that we're out of that business now. I don't believe that's true. But I will tell you this, the previous FCC basically gave, the courts, a gilt edged invitation to do what they did. We used--
The Bush administration.
MICHAEL COPPS: Right. We used to--
Under Michael Powell, who was the chairman of at the time, at the FCC?
MICHAEL COPPS: We used to call communications, telecommunications. But at the behest of a lot of the big companies back in 2002, over my strong and serious objections, we decided to call it something else. And move it from that part of the law, which said telecommunications has to provide consumer protection and privacy, guarantee the public safety, and you have some oversight responsibility, we took it to another section that says, you know, it's kind of a Never-Never Land. You don't really have to do anything. And we put it there.
What did you call it?
MICHAEL COPPS: We called it an information service.
So you changed--
MICHAEL COPPS: But--
Telecommunications to information service. What difference does that make?
MICHAEL COPPS: Because we robbed it of all of the responsibilities and protections that we had spent 20 or 30 years putting onto the telecommunications companies so we could protect consumers. Have some say in rates and how things were built and how things were shared and how we got them out. Protecting privacy. Making sure that that telecommunications system really worked for the future of the country. Now, put it over here, it's, well, we can still do what we need to do by some ambiguous authority. And the courts said, "No, you can't." So--
So you you're proposing, as I understand it, to move it back. To redefine it again as the telecommunications.
MICHAEL COPPS: Yeah. Let's call it what it is. I don't think we have telephone companies and cable companies and all this. We have broadband companies. And they're all in there competing with one another. They're all looking for control of the distribution. Now they're looking for content. All the recipes for monopoly and duopoly that we have seen throughout our history.
This is this is the way we communicate. We ought to look at it as a big ecosystem. And all this cable, radio, television, the Internet is all part of this ecosystem. And you can't you can't have legitimate public interest oversight of that if you go in with some stovepipe analysis, well, this is Telecom, this is cable. It's all the same thing. And we're all so dependent upon it. So we have to find a way to conduct that public oversight in a holistic, in a systematic, and in an intelligent fashion.
MICHAEL COPPS: And I think we can use the law we have right now if we reclassify to do that.
The industry wrote a letter to the commission and said that advocates of an open Net who are coming to the FCC and asking you to reclassify what you do as telecommunications want to steer the debate, and I'm quoting from the letter, "in a radical new way." I mean, they're calling you extremists and they're calling you radical.
MICHAEL COPPS: Because I want to call telecommunications, "telecommunications" and go back to the openness that has characterized the net since it was first invented in the laboratories of the Department of Defense. That's not extreme. That's not radical. That's called going back to basics. That's called consumer protection 101.
How threatened is the whole idea of an open Net?
MICHAEL COPPS: Oh, I think very. I think very. I think there are powerful players that are opposed to it. Are in a position to make their influence felt. None of these things are going to come easy. We've just been through the health insurance debate. We've got the financial debacle. None of this stuff gets solved without taking on taking on a fight. The government doesn't work that way. You've studied this history, I've studied this history. It's painful, it needs movements, it needs grassroots support, it needs the people.
And you're saying there's a very strong populist element here?
MICHAEL COPPS: I think so.
Populist interest being meaning the people versus interests?
MICHAEL COPPS: Well, yes, I do. I think people are more interested in this. You know, we went through this media ownership debate several years ago. And I think the powers that be at the Federal Communications Commission at that time said, "Oh, we can get rid of all of these ownership restrictions. We don't care how many broadcast outlets one company can hold. And nobody cares around the country. I mean, this is just too arcane, it's too sophisticated. We'll just do this inside the beltway." I said, "Let's go out and have some hearings". 'Oh, no, you don't want to have hearings. We'll just we'll just take care of this here.' But, by the time we were through, three million people had contacted the FCC and congress to voice their displeasure. And we did have hearings at my insistence around the country where we would go for seven, eight, nine hours at night in town hall meetings with people talking about, "Something's wrong in my media system. I'm not getting the news anymore." Or, "I'm a minority. None of my news ever gets covered." Or, "When I'm on TV I'm there as a caricature of or a stereotype of something I'm not." People get it. People understand.
As you know, we covered some for those hearings that you--
MICHAEL COPPS: I know.
Called for around the country. And I still can see in my mind's eye, and I can also go to the video, and look at faces of ordinary people standing up and said, "We care about media ownership."
SUSAN MCCABE: We told you a year ago, when you came to Seattle, that media consolidation is a patently bad idea, no ifs ands or buts about it. So with all due respect, I ask you: What part of that didn't you understand?
KING COUNTY COUNCILMEMBER REAGAN DUNN (R): I'm a Republican and I'm a capitalist, but some areas of our private sector must be regulated. Freedom of information is too important. We must be proactive in protecting that fundamental freedom.
CHICAGO PUBLIC HEARING PARTICIPANT: If the FCC is here wanting to know if Chicago's residents are being well served. The answer is no. If local talent is being covered? The answer is no. If community issues are being handled sensitively? The answer is no. If minority groups getting the coverage and input that they need? The answer is no, the answer is no.
DOROTHY LEVELL: If you look at the major broadcast outlets in Chicago, there is not one single political talk show hosted by an African American.
And that was a real revelation to me of the democratic thrust in our society.
MICHAEL COPPS: Right. Now fast forward to this, we're talking about the open Internet, and the future of broadband, which is just as important to them. And perhaps all of that media one day is going to migrate over to the Internet. And they have a vested public interest in making sure that those things are protected on the Internet. And this is this is a tough question for America right now. Here you've got this dynamic technology that thrives on openness that thrives on innovation and all of that. And you don't want to regulate, or artificially limit it. But, at the end of the day, if that's where everything is moving, is that where our national dialogue, our civic dialogue is moving, if that's how we're going to educate ourselves and all, there is a public interest component to that. How do you make that happen in a global environment? The Internet is international. It runs so much differently. But still, at the end of the day, I think you have to come to that conclusion that we have a public interest in how this is used to inform and serve the American people.
The industry responds, and they did say in the letter of February 22nd, to the commission, regulating the Internet, as these parties propose, these radical and extremist parties, these Bolsheviks like Michael Copps, regulating the Internet, as these parties propose would be a profound mistake with harmful and lasting consequences for consumers and our economy.
MICHAEL COPPS: I don't think we're talking about regulating the Internet. I'm talking about keeping the dynamism of the Internet that's there. I'm talking about keeping it open. We've had the generally speaking, with a few exceptions openness on the on the Internet.
So we want to preserve that. What we're trying to be careful of is that the gatekeepers and the tollbooth operators aren't just regulating the Internet for their self interest, or for competitive advantage. And I'm not saying they shouldn't compete, or anything like that. Obviously, they're businesses and all. But, at the end of the day, again, we need to know what's going on, on that network management, know how they're using this technology, and have that visionary public policy out there that says, 'We understand how important this is to the future of this country. And there are some responsibilities that go with the great power that you, as companies, have been given.'
How powerful is this industry you're up against?
MICHAEL COPPS: I think it's a very powerful industry. An industry that increasingly has control over how we converse with one another, other than sitting across the table and talking, how we converse with each other, on the media, through journalism and all of that. That's maybe the most important industry in the country or in the world. You know, if your big issue is energy dependence, or climate change, or health insurance, or expanding equal opportunity, this issue of the future of the media, now the media on broadband, has to be your number two issue. Because, on that one, depends on how that big issue that you your number one issue gets filtered and funneled to the American people.
But practical question. When I drive into New York City from New Jersey or Long Island, whether I come Highway 80, 78, 46, three what all these highways from the west, converge into the Hudson River. And we have to come under a tunnel to get into New York City. So the traffic has to jockey and reciprocate and come from many tributaries down to a single stream moving through under the it under the river in that tunnel. I mean, there are tollbooths there in order to regulate direct the traffic. If the Internet doesn't have some means of traffic control aren't we all going to have a big jam up?
MICHAEL COPPS: Maybe we need more tunnels. Maybe we need these companies, instead of figuring out how the is this going to make a buck off the current infrastructure we have, maybe we need more of that broadband infrastructure. And certainly that should be clear now. You can't get high speed broadband in many places in this country. In some places you can get it, but it's too expensive. We've got one third of the nation right now that is not connected to broadband. You know, back in the New Deal, Franklin Roosevelt said, "I see one third of a nation ill housed, ill clad and ill nourished." And now we have one third of the nation that's not connected to this. And I think in the long run that's how we're going to increasingly educate our kids and care for our health and solve all of these other problems, whether it's energy, environment, civic engagement and journalism, that you talked about. All of this hinges mightily, hinges dramatically on how we get that broadband out to people.
Do we get it to every corner of the land? Do we get it to the inner city? To the rural countryside? To the minorities? To the disabled? To Native American country? Are all of those people going to be equal participant?
Is that why we're behind so many other industrial countries in
MICHAEL COPPS: We're behind because we never had a strategy. We just sat by blithely watching and saying, "Oh, the invisible hand." And the God given glories of the marketplace are going to take care of all of this stuff. And we found ourselves in 15th, or 20th, or 24th place, wherever it is, in terms of broadband penetration.
So fast forward, finally, we've got a government in 2008 who understood the importance of this. Who understood that it's as American as apple pie to have public and private sector partnerships to build broadband. Who understood that the private sector, which is the locomotive and the engine of our economy, does best when it's guided by visionary public policy. We always did that. That's how we built that's how we built this country. Go you go back to the very beginning, you know when the settlers trekked across the mountains, the challenge the infrastructure challenge of that area was how do they get their products to market? So we built turnpikes and canals and bridges and roads. Later on, in the early part of the next century, regional railroads and transcontinental railroads. And it wasn't 100 unanimity to do this. But, by and large, we figured out a way to get it done, even as late as the highway system under--
The 1950s, the Eisenhower--
MICHAEL COPPS: Or telecommunications or electricity. But, all of a sudden, fast forward to the 1980s, oh, we don't need that was the un-American part. We don't need to use our government to help the American people. And we strayed from our path and that's how we got to 15 or 20.
Do you realize that, when you talk this way, you talk about the public interest sphere, you talk about democracy, you talk about any kind of effort to curtail the power of the market, Glenn Beck's going to call you a communist, a socialist, or worse? You realize that don't you?
MICHAEL COPPS: I guess so.
Tell us your what how do you deal with it? Seriously, how do you deal with those kind of charges when they keep hurling at you 24/7?
MICHAEL COPPS: I think you stop playing defense and start playing offense and talk about what you really believe and try to talk sense to the American people. But it goes beyond that because we have to have an institution of journalism in this country that gets real facts and information out to people. We've always had the chatterers. We've always had precursors of you know, raging cable, or talkative radio. And we always value opinion. Everybody's entitled to their opinion. Everybody's not entitled to their own set of facts. And what this country needs right now is a kind of resource hungry expensive journalism that is fast disappearing to provide those kind of facts. And that gets us to the new media that we were talking about, and the old media too. Newspapers and broadcast still produce 85 or 90 percent of the news and information that the American people get, even the news that they see on the Internet.
And it's not just talking about what's going to happen ten years from now on the Internet, although that's an important question. How are we going to have viable journalism there? How do we get from here to there? Because I don't think we can take another five or ten years of the kind of diminution of journalism closing of newsrooms, the near demise of investigative reporting. We can't we can't tolerate that and expect that we're going to have the American people sufficiently informed to do what they need to do.
But, you know, since 2001 American newsrooms have lost more than 25 percent of their full time staffers. Newspapers are struggling. Look at this, you know just recently, the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism released a survey of newspaper and broadcast editors, dinosaurs like me.
Fewer than half said they're confident their operations will survive another ten years. And just about a third of them said they'd only last five years or less. Now, one of the reasons for the demise of my craft in print and broadcasting is the growing influence of the Internet, right?
MICHAEL COPPS: Partially right. Yes. I don't think completely right. I think we can say Internet and the economy have been the downfall. But I think, equally, or more so, what has been destructive of journalism is just the experience we have been through with this tsunami of industry consolidation that we've had.
And, we could see this coming. With fewer and fewer companies gobbling up all of these outlets and playing by the rules of this hyper speculation. I think newspapers are going to survive. And I think broadcast is going to come back. What I'm not convinced of is that newspapers in their new survival mode are going to be able to unaided, support the kind of in-depth journalism that we need to have. And get those reporters back. I think they can get by with that slimmed down newsroom, or the closed down newsroom. That doesn't that doesn't help the country very much, though. So, I think, at some point, we have to get off the defensive and start talking about public support for public media.
What do you mean?
MICHAEL COPPS: I mean that, in the United States of America, we spend $1.35 per capita per annum supporting public media. In other countries
You mean public broadcasting, public radio
MICHAEL COPPS: Public broadcasting. Public radio. Exactly.
MICHAEL COPPS: Right. Lots of other countries are spending 50, 75, 100 dollars or more. And you kind of get what you pay for. And they're supporting that, and it's not interfering with the democracy of those nations in Denmark or Finland or Great Britain or places like that. You know, we have 27 states now, 27 states that do not have an accredited reporter on Capitol Hill.
How do you hold the powerful accountable if over half the states aren't even covering what that office holder is doing? I see it as the FCC. I mean far fewer reporters on the beat talking questioning what I do. Or what my colleagues do. We're at a point where we have got to take action on these things. You know, it's the old. I'm a great believer in the idea of reform cycles in American history. I think you have
You're an old historian, right?
MICHAEL COPPS: I am-- well, I'm with emphasis on the old. Yeah.
All right. Yeah. All right.
MICHAEL COPPS: And I think you know, these the cycles of reform come around all too infrequently. "There is a tide in the affairs of man/Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;/Omitted, into all the voyage of our life/Is bound in shallows and in miseries," as Shakespeare said. To rob that of its poetry, and put it in a text message, I think it says, ride the tide.
And I want to ride the tide. I think you have that opportunity of reform that opened in this country a couple years ago. But these windows don't stay open forever. We don't know how widely they open. And we have an opportunity now to do some of these things. And if we can't solve the complete problem, make some down payments while we consider the larger comprehensive problems. I don't think any of these problems are going to be resolved until the American people really get fired up about them. And that's happened before, and what we have to show them now is that there are folks who want to tackle these problems who've got some ideas for tackling them. And now we've got to send a message to all of our elected representatives and everybody else that we're expecting some action. The future is now.
The future is now?
MICHAEL COPPS: Yep.
If you can get access to it.
MICHAEL COPPS: That's the question, isn't it?
Commissioner Copps, thank you very much for being with me on the JOURNAL.
MICHAEL COPPS: Thank you for having me on.
MALE VOICE #1: The miracle of high speed, wire communication is commonplace today. Lift a telephone receiver and the world is at your fingertips.
MALE VOICE #2: Radio's greatest application is in broadcasting mass entertainment.
MALE VOICE #3: Television is most certainly here to stay. It's going to brighten the world of your home.
MALE VOICE #4: Broadband is really the high-speed connection that takes us onto the highways and byways with the 21st Century.