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An Internet for the few or the many?

Commissioner Michael Copps says FCC will soon grapple with issues that could forever affect Net--for good or bad.

Michael Copps has a message for the technology industry when it comes to Net neutrality: Get involved.

Copps, a Democratic commissioner in the Republican-controlled Federal Communications Commission since May 2001, recently urged an audience of technology executives to participate in the political process and public debate on preserving the Internet's freedom and diversity. That hallmark of the Internet, many say, could be jeopardized by operators seeking to control distribution and content, meaning the Net could quickly be dominated by the interests of only a few media giants in this country.

CNET News.com caught up with Copps at the recent Supernova 2006 tech conference in San Francisco, where he talked about Net neutrality, the broadcast flag and the plight of decency on TV.

Q: Where do you stand on this hot-button issue of Net neutrality?
Copps: I'm a believer that we have to preserve the openness of the Internet. What this boils down to is Internet freedom. Are we going to keep this platform open and dynamic and--small "d"--a democratic technology platform that we have gotten accustomed to with dial-up Internet? Or in this age of high-speed broadband, are we going to turn it over to others to operate? Are we just going to transform the whole nature of the Internet from where the pipe in the middle was dumb and the intelligence was on the ends--are we going to reverse that and give all the control and intelligence to the pipe and network operators and relegate ourselves to less of a role on the edges?

How does media consolidation play into this issue in your mind?
Copps: It's all about the same thing. It's all about the control--can you control both the distribution and the content? And when you do that, it is of course a classic recipe for monopoly.

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Video: Network neutrality in the spotlight
FCC Commissioner Copps ponders the issue

We already have a telecommunications system in this country different from the rest of the world in that we don't have a lot of competitors. We don't have competitive policies that encourage a lot of outside carriers to come in, so there are fewer distributors to begin with. So you have to be more careful in turning over the content control.

This whole network neutrality debate has accelerated so quickly and gotten so much traction. I was at a hearing in Norfolk (Virginia) recently on media consolidation, and some of the speakers got up during the open-mike session and said: What has been visited upon media by consolidation is possibly now, maybe probably, going to be visited on the Internet.

People in the room, the young audience, understood that immediately. They gave more reaction to that than anything that night. I began to realize that this is the third rail of the consolidation debate. You have the issues of the big telecom mergers. That's No 1. Second rail is media consolidation. I think Net neutrality is the third rail.

Do you think the FCC's broadband connectivity principles are enough to offer the sorts of protections that Internet companies and consumer groups are after, or would you like to see Congress pass legislation offering additional tools?
Copps: I'd like to see more. I think we were successful in getting those principles enunciated and getting everybody at the FCC to vote for it at least as a general commitment. Totally bereft of any enforceability--we couldn't get that, we tried to get it. But at least we got them on the record and we provided some time and teed up the issue so that Congress can debate it and the American people can discuss it.

We need to...figure out, practically speaking, how do we ensure that there's not discrimination on the Internet.

Now we need to go beyond those principles and get into phase 2 and figure out, practically speaking, how do we ensure that there's not discrimination on the Internet. And are we going to give somebody, the FCC or whomever, some authority to make sure it's open.

The FCC decided last week to include VoIP providers in the realm of services that must pay into the Universal Service Fund (a subsidy for telecommunications services in rural and low-income areas, schools and libraries). You've said you'd like to expand the USF contribution pool even further, to include, for example, broadband providers. How do you envision that working?
Copps: Well I think it's very difficult to talk about. Universal service, of course, is the principle that we're trying to provide reasonable and comparable telephone and communications service to everybody in the country no matter where they live--(whether it's) an easy to reach market or a difficult, much more costly kind of market. And we were successful, I think, by in large in doing that in the era of plain-old telephone service.

But now it's becoming unclear, as we seek to build broadband out to all those difficult markets, are we going just to exempt the broadband providers, who may be doing very well in the affluent markets--kind of skimming the cream there--are we going to make them contribute to the universal service like we did before, (but) when it comes to broadband? Or are we going to take the broadband out of this whole equation?

I don't see how you build broadband...if you say broadband (providers are) exempt from participation in this whole system. It's just a contradiction in terms to me.

I'm for including VoIP and wireless where there's interconnection with the network, and I think that's a solid foundation. But I'm very much opposed to the commission's approach on broadband thus far in so far as it affects universal service.

Would there be separate obligations for companies that operate noninterconnected VoIP (such as AIM Voice chat, Skype, etc.)?
Copps: I think what we're trying to focus on now is whether it's interconnection with the network, the communications network.

Would there be an impact on consumers' monthly bills?
Copps: Absolutely--there could be an impact. I think you're much better off, again, if you're a VoIP or wireless provider, there's a possibility now that your bills are going to go up because we haven't included the broadband. When everyone participates in the (system) it's more equitable and fair and you don't feel the pain as much. It could well be consumers are going to feel more pain, and that's something we always have to be sensitive and alive to. Consumers, too often, don't get the priority concern that they ought to get.

There still appears to be some uncertainty among universities and research institutions about whether they need to wire their broadband networks so that they can be tapped by law enforcement (under the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act, or CALEA). Do you feel that the FCC needs to clarify its order any further? Does it plan to do so?
Copps: I think we constantly need to be alive to concerns that are being expressed on this. Again, I think what we're looking at is where there's that connection to the publicly switched network and having access to that and not being concerned about things that are peculiar or specific to inside the college or university, where there's certainly less of a need for that kind of oversight.

The Senate Commerce Committee last week began to mark up a vast communications bill that would give the FCC the authority to adopt its controversial "broadcast flag" rules again for protecting against copying over-the-air content. How do you feel about those rules being reinstated?
Copps: Well, I voted for the inclusion of the broadcast flag originally a couple of years ago. The courts overturned that, so we are bereft of that authority right now.

It's a very difficult area. The FCC is not a principle player in copyright and things like that. But moving into this digital age, we're not going to make this digital transition unless there are some rules of the road. So if Congress in its wisdom decides that the FCC should be given this authority to do what it tried to do a few years ago, that's fine with me.

Congress recently decided to increase indecency fines on broadcasters tenfold. Do you think that's an effective mechanism for deterring the sort of content they're targeting? Does the FCC have any plans to wade further into this area and make new regulations?
Copps: I think it's important to us. There (are) roles for everyone in this decency discussion. There's obviously a role for parents. Maybe that's the critical role--to exercise control over their television, over their children, and over their homes. There's a role for industry...to make controls available and to educate people, help people understand how to use those tools.

Those who expect us to just put out a piece of paper and say, this is what's indecent and this is not, are looking for the impossible.

But it's not just that. There's also an obligation on industry to produce family friendly programming during those hours when Congress has stipulated that we can't have indecency on the airwaves. And I think the industry needs to do a lot more there. For example, the FCC, our obligation is to enforce the law and try to bring some clarity to what is indecent and what is not. We don't have total clarity there yet.

But those who expect us to just put out a piece of paper and say, this is what's indecent and this is not, are looking for the impossible. You have to build that up over the course of jurisprudence and look at specific context. But you have to enforce the law. But we also have to bring some clarity to it. And this is an additional tool Congress has given us to increase the fines. I'm happy that the new legislation doesn't get into the concept of fining performers for something said on the air. Our recourse is to the licensor and the station owner. I don't think the FCC has any business going after the performer.

It's a difficult sensitive subject. We have to get a balance. That's why I go back to: There's a role for everybody. Don't just put it all on one group, or look to the FCC, or whatever. Parents, industry and government together can solve this. If we had had that approach 20 years ago, we wouldn't have all these battles going on right now, because there would have been some self-discipline exercised along the way.

What's the No. 1 thing on the FCC's agenda for the rest of the year?
Copps: The No. 1 thing on my agenda is this debate over media consolidation. It's so important, not just to the quality of entertainment that we are served up, but it's important to the vitality of our democratic process.

We have to get back to more localism, more diversity, more competition. (We need to) tee up issues so the American people have the information they need to make good decisions for the future of our country.

Will there be any change in the dynamic there, now that you have returned to a full slate of commissioners--with a 3-2 Republican majority?
Copps: Well, we'll see. On balance, I think it's good to have a full commission, even though that puts me into the minority. But I think that's the way the commission is intended to function.

The next thing I'd like to see is Congress change the law so the five of us can get together and talk together. Right now we are precluded from meeting more than one person at a time. It would be very nice if all...the commissioners could sit down (together) and work their way through these problems.

What advice would you give the technology industry right now?
Copps: Get involved. Decisions without you are decisions against you. Technology innovation and entrepreneurs have already paid a price because of their not being fully involved in public policy debates in Washington. Those who want to go in another direction are well-represented, well-entrenched and well-financed.

It's a steep climb, but I think these issues have the kind of public interest, common interest and impact that those who believe as I believe have a lot to build on. And I'm an optimist. With a lot of hard work, I think they can prevail on these issues and make sure that all these wonderful new technologies that we have serve the purposes that they were intended to serve in the first place, and not change into something that they were never intended to be.