CMA's History with Net Neutrality

Posted by Mitchell - May 2, 2024 (entry 772)

Net neutrality -- the policy of internet communications which strives to treat all content equally -- got a burst of coverage last week when the the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) restored net neutrality rules which the FCC in 2017 had abolished. (This vote would have happened a lot sooner had Gigi Sohn gotten confirmed to serve on the FCC.)

This marks a good occasion to review CMA's considerable history of activism on net neutrality. To be sure, I have remarked on aspects of CMA's work in past dispatches of this newsletter, particularly those related to Bobby Rush and to the Ministerial Alliance Against the Digital Divide. But this essay focuses on CMA's work in what could be termed the Net Neutrality Wars.

First, a bit of preliminary background: The FCC in 2002, led by policy scoundrel Michael Powell, had voted to reclassify the way internet to a low-regulation Title I "information service" from its previous higher regulation Title II "telecommunications service". This would open the door to turning the internet into a pay-TV model much like cable television. This early skirmish resulted in a lawsuit, NCTA v. Brand X, which went to the U.S. Supreme Court and which in 2005 affirmed the FCC's right to reclassify (and thus ruin) the internet as it wished.

I first read about the Brand X ruling on Slashdot, and when I did my stomach immediately filled with dread; I was expecting that we were going to have a fight on our hands, and that CMA would be active in that fight. Indeed, that fight crystallized the next year. I took up the fight for net neutrality in earnest after I heard an episode of Bob McChesney's radio program Media Matters (not to be confused with the media watch group Media Matters for America), where Bob and media activist Ben Scott discussed net neutrality for an entire hour. That did it for me: I felt it was time to devote more time and more work on net neutrality.

I brought up net neutrality as a discussion topic at a CMA organizing meeting, and was disappointed that it didn't catch on as I had hoped. One person felt it was unnecessary: There already was policy in place for neutrality on communications networks, that of common carriage. How was net neutrality different? In a manner of speaking, it wasn't much different; it was an extension of the same idea to the internet.

Nevertheless, I kept at it, and followed the same recipe that resulted in success in the Media Ownership Uprising of 2003: Explain the situation, spread the word as much as you can, and hopefully build a critical mass of popular interest that then affects policy for the better. That was basically my year of 2006.

I used my work with another media organization -- the Chicago Independent Media Center -- as another venue to spread the word, contributing segments on the topic to CIMC's radio and TV programs, as well as a feature on the CIMC website. That feature resulted in a segment on Chicago television station, WCIU channel 26 (perhaps best known nationally as the original home of the TV show "Soul Train"); that guest appearance marked the first of seven more appearances on WCIU on media and technology in the following decade-plus. I contributed to an op-ed, and I also wrote a separate article, intended for the then-nascent blogging community, titled "The End of the Blogosphere", hoping to raise the profile of net neutrality among bloggers.

And then of course, there was the National Day of Outrage, which I discussed previously in our dispatch on Bobby Rush. To recap: I pitched the idea of organizing a protest at a CMA organizing meeting with a grand total of three attendees. We agreed on organizing a protest, we agreed on a date (May 24, 2006), we agreed on a venue, and we agreed that we would email other folks to encourage them to do likewise. That then lit the fuse, which also got a boost from three consecutive days mentioned in the headlines on the news program Democracy Now!

Meanwhile, the Chicago Tribune embarrassed itself with an op-ed ironically titled "Hands Off The Internet", which complained about whiny activists. True to the tradition of skewering Tribune op-eds word-by-word, we did that again for this op-ed.

The COPE Act, the vehicle in Congress intended to abolish net neutrality, passed out of committee, but the fate of the COPE Act was sealed end after the committee hearing ended, courtesy a single activist who recorded Alaska senator Ted Stevens coining the now-infamous phrase "series of tubes" and galvanizing a flood of negative coverage that halted the COPE Act in its tracks and its subsequent death through inaction. Moral: Never doubt the actions of a single person.

In the subsequent years, Net Neutrality kept being a hot potato at the FCC, who offered weak policy proposals whether under Republicans like Kevin Martin or Democrats like Julius Genachowski -- weak because they didn't address reclassification. Meanwhile, we kept working on the issue -- making short films, giving talks, and in 2014 holding a grand four-episode series of lectures on the topic recorded on video and compiled into an e-book.

There wasn't much evident hope when a former lobbyist -- Tom Wheeler -- took the helm as FCC chair, especially with a proposed "hybrid" policy model. But with Wheeler, as well as with then-FCC spokesperson Gigi Sohn -- the tide turned. Finally, finally, we got the holy grail -- reclassification. The entire near-decade-long saga was itself the topic of another film I made.

Donald Trump won the presidency in 2016, and by convention the FCC became majority Republican. The FCC, under former Verizon lawyer Ajit Pai, undid the net neutrality in its entirety, no weak sauce policy alternative, nothing. Completely dead. Ironically, the same year the FCC voted, the First Circuit court of appeals affirmed the FCC's authority to reclassify the internet back to Title II.

Protests broke out across the United States; I had the good fortune to speak at one in downtown Chicago to give some history and context to the fight for net neutrality. By then the issue didn't need us to help promote it -- it had become the most-commented-on docket in the FCC's history.

As hard as we've fought for net neutrality over the years, that's not to say the policy is perfect. There's a deeper critique to be made regarding net neutrality serving as a policy bandage for deeper wounds of monopoly in telephony and internet access. Plus, even with net neutrality, it's not much without a better media infrastructure to produce substantive public-service media -- a critique CMA folks have publicly raised. All of this was heightened by the COVID-19 pandemic helped raise the profile of internet policy, and the assumption in the public mind of the internet as a utility.

And now, in 2024, we have net neutrality back -- at least until the next time the FCC comes under Republican hands. I suspect that net neutrality is now a political yo-yo, prone to change, absent a law from Congress. Should Democrats win both houses of Congress and the presidency in the 2024 elections, I believe such a law will come to pass. Ensuring that this happens will, I expect, be the next terrain of struggle.

The struggle continues, as it always does. I like to think that CMA played some role in helping advance this along.

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