By Howie Hawkins
It is time for the public to take back control of the Internet, a technology that was created with public dollars, so it serves the people’s interests. Under President Trump, there have been backward steps for the Internet and mass communication. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has always been corporate occupied territory. The next president needs to appoint commissioners who represent the public interest, not the corporate interests of telecoms.
I have signed the pledge to restore Net Neutrality and not take funding from the telecom industry and urge all candidates to do so. Elected officials need to respond to the necessities of the people, not the oligopoly profits of corporate interests.
There are serious problems with Internet policy in the United States that are the predictable outcome of the FCC consistently placing corporate interests above the public interest. The Federal Communications Commission reports that 21.3 million Americans don’t have access to high-speed broadband. This is because profit, not public service, rules the FCC and the telecom industry. The price of the Internet is too high everywhere and big companies don’t want to invest in rural areas or poor urban areas while preventing communities from deploying their own alternatives.. Rural areas have small and dispersed populations, which lowers profit, and poor urban communities cannot afford telecom services. As a result, these communities remain underserved.
THE INTERNET IS ESSENTIAL FOR ALL
The Internet has become a basic human right. The Internet is essential to function in modern society. People sign up for health insurance, apply for jobs, do research for school or work, introduce new products or services, and exercise freedom of speech. Many activities of life are now conducted online. The Internet is essential for all.
First Amendment protections including Freedom of the Press and Freedom of Speech should apply on the Internet, including on social media platforms. There need to be enhanced protections on platforms for political speech to prevent the use of modern censorship, i.e. using search engines, algorithms, and de-programming on platforms to suppress speech. Political speech should not only be protected in print and television, but should also be protected in the digital world, including websites, video, social media, and new outlets we cannot yet imagine.
Political speech on the Internet has been vital in recent years to put new issues on the political agenda. One example of many is people’s ability to video police violence, sometimes resulting in death, and share it widely. This has brought a long-term issue to the public consciousness and onto the political agenda. Without the people-powered Internet media, police violence would have remained unreported and hidden from public view.
A high priority of the next president should be to ensure a free and open Internet with equal access to all. This begins with remaking the FCC, which is currently headed by a former telecom lawyer, Ajit Pai. President Obama appointed Tom Wheeler, a telecom lobbyist from the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association, who worked for the National Cable Television Association and was an Internet venture capitalist. The next president should break that tradition and appoint FCC commissioners who put the people’s interests first and defend and expand the communication rights of everyone in the United States.
It is time to end the era of corporate telecom profiteering from the Internet. Profiteering from the Internet has currently reached grotesque proportions, with Charter’s Tom Rutledge being America’s highest-paid CEO at $98.5 million in 2016, and this will worsen without net neutrality.
After a campaign involving millions of people calling for Net Neutrality, the Obama-era FCC put in place Net Neutrality rules and reclassified broadband providers as “common carriers,” which makes them subject to telecom regulation for the first time. This was a positive step that was reversed by the current FCC, a decision that has been challenged in federal court. A decision on that challenge is expected soon. No matter how that decision turns out, the Internet movement should continue to advocate for Net Neutrality and other changes to ensure the people are in control of the Internet and it serves our interests.
The Internet must be understood to be a common carrier that is run as a public utility with equal access for all. The Internet was created with public resources and Internet access should be a public utility, not controlled by private corporations. Control of the Internet by the public includes community-developed Internet, municipal Internet, or even nationalizing the Internet. I favor the latter approach. I have called for the building of an Interstate High-Speed Internet System as part of my Ecosocialist Green New Deal. It is time to reverse the privatization of the Bill Clinton-Newt Gingrich era and reclaim the Internet as a public resource. This means bringing the Internet under democratic control, replacing private providers with public alternatives where we can, and regulating them where we cannot.
In 2010, the city-owned power utility in Chattanooga, Tennessee began selling affordable high-speed Internet service to residents. Using a fiber-optic network built partly with federal stimulus funds, the utility offers some of the fastest residential Internet speeds in the world. The broadband industry has responded forcefully, lobbying state legislatures to ban or limit similar experiments. But the success of the Chattanooga model has inspired movements for municipal broadband in several other cities. As of January 2019, more than 800 communities had community-owned Internet providers and were served by municipal networks instead of just Big Cable, and more than 300 were served by cooperatives.
THE INTERNET AGENDA FOR 2020
A top priority is to restore net neutrality so the public does not lose the ability to access sites, small businesses can compete and thrive, and people are able to tell stories too often ignored by the mainstream media. The agenda for the Internet for the 21st Century has been laid out in the Right To Connect 2020 proposals created by Free Press Action which we endorse and build on with our own priorities. The ten-point agenda should be endorsed by all candidates. It includes:
- Equal Voices Online: Restore strong Net Neutrality protections, the bedrock of digital civil rights and equality online. The United States needs Net Neutrality — the principle that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) should not be allowed to block, slow down, or discriminate against legal content. This requires the next FCC Chair and Commissioners to fully restore the 2015 Net Neutrality protections and legal framework, and the FCC’s ability to enforce those protections. The open Internet has been an incredible force for social and economic change. It has been used by Black Lives Matter to expose racist police violence, by Dreamers to advocate for their rights and by startup businesses and artists among others. Net neutrality is essential to prevent corporate interests from discriminating for-profit and limiting what users can see or say online.
- Equal Access for All: To close the digital divide, we must make Internet access universally available. Millions of people in low-income communities and communities of color can’t afford to get online. While Internet access is available to many low-income families, it is at prices they can’t afford. As a first step, the FCC should restore the Lifeline program, which subsidizes critical communications services for low-income households, which was gutted by the Trump FCC. In the long run, we must reframe the Internet as a public utility, encourage publicly-owned Internet that serves the people rather than treat the Internet as a profit-making endeavor.
- Support Local News: The next president must encourage diverse local media and stop the continued concentration of broadcasting conglomerates. People need access to diverse news sources, that are locally controlled and give voice to people of color and other marginalized communities. The FCC and Department of Justice must stop the continued concentration of broadcast media. This requires limiting ownership of television media to one station per local market and promoting media-ownership diversity by women and people of color.
- Build Dependable Networks: The United States needs a resilient infrastructure. One of the lessons from the Hurricane damage in Puerto Rico is that the climate crisis threatens disasters for our communication systems. Hurricane Maria knocked out 95 percent of cellphone towers on the Puerto Rican islands, causing deaths due to the inability to make telephone calls or access life-saving information. FCC Commissioners should be appointed who understand the impact of climate chaos on communication and who will support local communities in developing decentralized, locally-controlled communications networks in vulnerable areas. They must also put in place policies that hold companies accountable for building resilient networks and prevent corporate profiteering from the climate crisis.
- Diverse Media: The next president must stop media deregulation and oppose corporate mergers and monopolies by appointing FCC and Federal Trade Commission (FTC) commissioners and Department of Justice officials who prioritize the public over industry profits. The waves of media and telecommunications mergers have swallowed up diverse voices and competitive alternatives. The next president supports antitrust investigations of media and tech companies who have outsized market power due to corporate concentration as well as promote enforcement actions to end monopolistic abuses.
- End Prison-Phone Exploitation: The United States must ensure affordable and accessible communications for incarcerated people and their loved ones. People who are incarcerated are charged astronomical rates for phone calls and video visitations. This undermines their ability to maintain strong family bonds which increases rates of recidivism. Corporations should not be profiting from making it difficult and expensive for incarcerated people to communicate. The Trump FCC went backward on this issue by failing to defend in court the positive steps taken by the Obama administration. In addition, the next president should not allow replacing in-person prison visitation with video calls.
- Accountable Media: We must expose the harm caused by a media system that is built on a history of discrimination. A capitalist-based media system is going to prejudice the poor and minority communities who do not have the resources the profit pursuers demand. In1968, the Kerner Commission reported on the media’s failure to portray the full humanity of people of color, and Black people specifically, and concluded this has “contributed to the black-white schism in this country.” This reality continues to this day. The nation needs a process to understand this history that involves activists, academics, and community representatives in developing a plan to create a new media for the 21st Century that leaves this discrimination behind.
- End Government Surveillance: Spying on activists and on certain communities has been common throughout the 21st Century. Police Red Squads infiltrated, gathered intelligence, harassed, and undermined political and social groups dating back to the Haymarket Riot in 1886. These specialized units of city police departments were a weapon against unions, socialists, anarchists, and other dissidents. Homeland Security and the FBI target Muslim populations and so-called “Black Identity Extremists” to target Black activists fighting for racial justice. Law enforcement abuses technological tools to spy on people, silence dissent, and criminalize people of color. The next president needs to end mass surveillance, prohibit social-media monitoring by law enforcement without strong guidelines, and oppose data-sharing with ICE that targets immigrants and threatens their families. The next president should appoint people to the Department of Justice, FBI, Homeland Security and intelligence agencies who are committed to ending mass spying and surveillance programs.
- Protect Digital Privacy: ISPs, corporations, and government compile huge amounts of information on all of us. People need strong privacy protections that require ISPs and Internet companies to clearly and conspicuously disclose what they do with our data and prohibit exploitative data-mining practices. We need comprehensive privacy legislation that gives people meaningful control, protections, transparency, and the ability to assert their rights over the collection and use of all private data. The law should apply longstanding civil-rights protections to digital-data practices. Officials should be appointed to DOJ and other government agencies who will work diligently to protect privacy and civil rights.
- Defend Freedom Of The Press: New rules are needed to defend 21st Century journalism. With the Internet, noncommercial media has expanded with technology enabling people to become the media. The last two presidential administrations have used espionage laws to attack and prosecute the media and whistleblowers. People, through social media platforms, have filled the void left by concentrated corporate media that has failed to provide people and communities with news they need. There is a need for greater freedom for independent media as well as funding for public interest journalism. The United States needs to revive and reinvent the public-media system by investing in newsgathering, new technology, and new and non-traditional local outlets across the country. There is a range of proposals that would fund investigative journalism and local news media, especially in regions of the country where there are no traditional local-news outlets.
TOWARD A NEW TELECOMMUNICATIONS ACT
Technology is outpacing the law. It is time for a new Telecommunications Act that democratizes the media, ensures the Internet serves the public good, and reins in corporate and government powers.
Related to the final point is a potential serious threat to the Internet. Elizabeth Goitein, co-director of the Brennan Center, wrote in the Atlantic in February that the 1934 Communications Act is being interpreted as granting the executive branch the power to “seize control of US Internet traffic, impeding access to certain websites.” This includes the ability to shut down the Internet, block the delivery of email, and manipulate smart speakers like Amazon Alexa upon the president’s proclamation “that there exists a state or threat of war involving the United States.”
Constitutional freedoms must be protected on the Internet. Ending privatization and returning the Internet to public control will ensure that constitutional rights are restored. Currently, Internet censorship by corporate interests is stifling the people’s media. In 2018, Rep. Ro Khanna introduced an “Internet Bill of Rights,” which was a good beginning to expanding protection of people’s rights on the Internet.
We must repeal the pro-conglomeration provisions of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, restore cross-ownership restrictions to reestablish media diversity in local media markets, and take antitrust action to break up the media monopolies. The Internet must be regulated as a public good and a basic right, open and accessible to all with net neutrality and personal privacy and data protected.
The movement for a free and open Internet with equal access for all has shown it has the political power to pass a new Telecommunications Act that ensures these rights. Net neutrality and other open Internet issues are supported across the political spectrum by more than 80% of the public. I will use my campaign to highlight and support the work of this movement.