Last week Thursday, area Congressional representatives Vern Ehlers (Grand Rapids) and Pete Hoekstra (Holland), voted yes and no respectively on the House of Representatives’ Communications Opportunity, Promotion, and Enhancement Act (COPE). The measure, which may determine the future of the Internet and public access television in the United States, was passed by a vote of 321 to 101 late Thursday night. The bill makes a variety of changes to telecommunications law including reducing the obligations that cable television companies have to devote channels to public access and fund the facilities that run them (for example the local Grand Rapids Community Media Center), replacing local cable franchises with national franchises, and permitting cable and telephone companies to operate internet and other digital communications services as private networks with little government oversight. Additionally, cable and telephone companies will no longer be required to “build-out” their networks equitably and will thus be allowed to offered enhanced services in wealthy neighborhoods while neglecting adjacent low-income neighbors.
Despite the threats to community access television, the most controversial aspect of the COPE legislation is its failure to take a position on “network neutrality” or “net neutrality.” Net Neutrality is the principle that forbids Internet service providers from discrimination in content delivery that means in practical terms that Internet service providers (ISPs) cannot prioritize content or websites, so mediamouse.org will load just as fast as cnn.com. With an Internet governed by net neutrality, servers are required only to move data as it is requested across the Internet. However, telephone and cable companies including AT&T, Verizon, Comcast, and Time Warner, want to change this and appoint themselves “gatekeepers” of the internet by granting themselves the ability to prioritize traffic in favor of websites that pay for quicker internet access or those websites that are run by the ISP or partner corporations. Some corporations such as America Online (AOL), have also proposed surcharges for emails in order to make further profits while restricting the free flow of information that is a critical to the ongoing viability of the internet as a tool for communication as well as advocacy and organizing work. Already, there have been several examples of what can happen when there are no protections for network neutrality with Time Warner’s AOL blocking emails that promoted a website critical of their effort to charge for emails, Canadian ISP Telus blocked access to a website sympathetic to the Telecommunications Workers Union during a labor dispute, and in 2004 a North Carolina ISP blocked their DSL customers from using rival web-based phone services.
On the issue of net neutrality, local congressional Representatives Vern Ehlers and Pet Hoekstra both voted against an amendment to the COPE Act that would have guaranteed net neutrality. While the COPE bill failed to protect net neutrality, Free Press cofounder Robert McChesney noted last Friday that the term has moved from “little-know tech jargon to the most contentious issue in the COPE Act” with McChesney describing what he termed a “massive right-left coalition of Americans” who are opposed to any bill that fails to protect net neutrality. This coalition includes nearly 800,000 citizens who signed a petition sponsored by the Save the Internet Coalition, Internet companies such as Google and Ebay, and a variety of media advocacy groups.
The legislation was promoted by lobbyists for the telephone industry who have sought the removal of a variety of regulations they claim are impeding their ability to compete with cable companies offering internet services and have used their extensive profits to bankroll a variety of front groups advocating for the passage of COPE (former Clinton White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry was one of the key lobbyists advocating for the legislation). The telephone companies and their lobbyists were able to convince legislators that the local franchising model used to govern cable television contracts—through which municipalities negotiate on the local level with cable companies in exchange for the use of “the public right of way”—was outdated and would slow their deployment of new technologies. Instead, telephone companies pursued what they termed a “national franchise” agreement that pre-empts all current local franchises and allows telephone companies to enter any market without local oversight and control. Instead of complaints being dealt with on the local level, control over national franchises would be turned over to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). As would be expected, cable companies have also supported the legislation as a way of eliminating their need to negotiate local franchise agreements. If legislation similar to the COPE Act is passed by the Senate, local municipalities are expected to lose millions in funding for public, educational, and government access television that they previously earned through franchise agreements.
People are encouraged to contact their Senators to tell them to vote no on telecommunications legislation that fails to protect network neutrality, local educational and community television, and access for low-income and rural communities.