Raucous Crowd Stifled in Net Neutrality Debate at Latest FCC Event
By Matthew Toplikar / filmsforaction.org

Albuquerque, NM -- Frustrating.  This is the best way to describe the first public FCC question and answer session since Chairman Tom Wheeler proposed his “Open Internet” rules in May.   It wasn’t just Wheeler’s dodging of straightforward questions, or the recurring technical difficulties that led to more microphone feedback than you’d hear in a grade-school Christmas pageant.   Mostly the mix of irritation and disappointment came from the discouragement of public participation in this “public dialogue”. 

You could feel the anger building throughout the event as the restless and passionate crowd was forced to mostly bite it’s lip, while a small number of what appeared to have been pre-approved questions were asked to the chairman.  At one point, New Mexico State Senator Jacob Candelaria, who was part of the onstage panel, addressed the palpable emotion, showing surprise at the passion he was feeling from the crowd.

The event was held in Albuquerque, New Mexico and organized by the Media Literacy Project.  The MLP is a very well-meaning group who’ve I’ve been a supporter of in the past, but who I must regrettingly say – really, really dropped the ball here.

Strangely (or maybe not so strangely) the format of this event was weighted so that Chairman Wheeler was mostly hearing from “Youth Voices”.  They were smart kids, but they tended to ask aggravatingly similar questions throughout the night– mostly pertaining to the lack of access to the internet in so many parts of the state of New Mexico.  This is of course a major issue in the state, which falls dead last in internet access.  I understand why it should and needs to be addressed, but the chairman wasn’t really able to give any concrete answers to how it should be fixed.  Because the problem itself is undisputed, there was a definite feeling of beating a dead horse as the same basic, uncontroversial sentiments were re-worded by each of the panelists on stage. 

Maybe the best way to get the Chairman to New Mexico was to tell him he’d only have to take softball questions from high school students, but the effect of this limited the conversation to some extremely vague and pre-packaged political answers.  The MLP’s moderator, local activist and campaign coordinator Alanna Offield seemed more interested in getting the next question asked rather than insuring the last question was sufficiently answered.  This led to a small tiff with a questioner who tried to ask a follow-up question after one of the Chairman’s dubiously ambiguous responses.

Like most things political today, the Orwellian sales tactic of naming and describing regulation in a way opposite to how it actually works is in full swing in Chairman Wheeler’s current “Open Internet” proposal. 

Experts and industry analysts are in agreement that the new regulations will leave Internet Service Providers with the legal ammunition they need to create a two-class internet system.  This would in-effect create a tollbooth where the internet enters your home in which select companies could have preferred access and higher speeds, while smaller or competing companies and websites could be slowed or stopped.

For those of you who don’t follow this issue as closely as I do, here’s a little recent history.  In April this year, the DC Circuit Court ruled that the FCC could not enforce Net Neutrality rules because it does not classify the internet as a “common carrier”.  Other common carriers include but are not limited to utilities like electricity, gas, and telephone services, as well as certain public transportation services.  The basic idea of common carrier regulation is that certain services are so essential to how people live and how businesses operate that the public needs to have some protection against price gouging, denial of access, and other discriminatory practices  from the companies that provide the service.

There were a few questions posed regarding Net Neutrality, however the chairman’s answers to them were pretty much what you’d expect from a former telecommunications lobbyist (I really wish someone would have called him out on that one). 

Like a late-night infomercial host, Wheeler kept repeating the phrase “Open Internet”, while assuring the crowd that he was against a paid priority system.  However, when pressed on whether or not he would reclassify the internet as a common carrier/ utility, it was obvious that he wasn’t really considering the option.

In a somewhat nervous explanation of how this is “not a black & white issue”, the Chairman used the boogeyman buzzword most commonly repeated by opponents of net neutrality and reclassification:   “innovation”. 

While you never seem to get a specific answer or example as to how enforcing net neutrality will hurt technological innovation, the general idea is similar to the Alan Greenspan methodology of regulating the Financial Services and Banking Industries. If you’ve already forgotten how deregulation in those industries ended up for American citizens, just google “2008 Economic Crisis”.

What’s important to remember is that all of the innovation that has happened on the internet thus far would not have happened without net neutrality.  It actually helps promote  innovation by promoting fair competition.   Before Facebook or Youtube were the large corporations they are today, they were able to compete with their larger competitors because internet users were not blocked or slowed when trying to use their websites.

While the FCC has repeatedly said that it is interested in hearing from citizens about it’s new “Open Internet” rules, it was clear after attending this event that Chairman Wheeler is not very interested in hearing from people in a public venue.  After the event, many crowd members stuck around, hoping to talk with Wheeler on his way out of the auditorium.  Albuquerque Police kept people from approaching the stage area and Wheeler ended up leaving the back way. 

We are encouraged to write to the FCC, but letters, emails, and even phone calls are more easily dismissed than face-to-face contact, and this was a good example of how we keep our elected and appointed public officials in a protective bubble from real public discourse.

In addition to the live questions, the Media Literacy Project also projected the feed of questions and comments from its Twitter page onstage behind Chairman Wheeler.  Some of these questions were , shall we say… a little less submissive in tone than the ones asked in person.  However, the Chairman seemed to be oblivious to the fact that they even existed, and as far as I know, did not see any of them.

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Raucous Crowd Stifled in Net Neutrality Debate at Latest FCC Event