Why Jennifer Granholm Really Is Helping Destroy the Internet
by Matt Stoller, Mon Dec 11, 2006 at 06:53:08 PM EST
Politics is about power, and it's important to realize that or else we will get suckered. For instance, earlier today I got some pushback on a post I wrote condemning Governor Jennifer Granholm for not forcing net neutrality protections in a Michigan cable franchising bill. I don't want to get too much into the weeds of telecom legislation, because this isn't about policy, it's about power deceiving progressives. InterrupT has an interesting post at Michigan Liberal where he argues that a franchising bill that looks like it's about to pass, HB 6456, isn't really related to net neutrality. Sadly, he couldn't be more wrong, and it's the type of wrongness that is going to lose us our free and open internet. Here's an email from a knowledgable friend of mine on how these guys work and why it's not as simple as thinking that we can just put through net neutrality protections.
Net neutrality politics have gotten a shade complex. Here's a stab at sorting out why it's important to pass net neutrality in a state, why it must be done in the same package as "franchise reform," and why it's critical even though it would only apply to Internet connections in that state.
Let's start with power. Ultimately, all politics is a competition for the power to change things. Net neutrality pits the power of the cable and phone companies against...well...pretty much everybody else. They are more organized, well-financed and professional in the game of politics than "everybody else", which explains why they are so successful. How does telco power operate? I'll give you an analogy from the war on drugs (bear with me). Think of the telcos as Columbian drug lords. No matter how many times government pesticide planes fly over and eradicate fields of poppies, the drug lords just plant elsewhere. Its just too lucrative. If you stop the flow of power in one direction, it just finds a way around you.
This year in Washington, the telcos tried to get the GOP majority to pass a bill custom designed to make them piles and piles of money. It was an unprecedented attempt at a power grab. The telcos essentially wanted communications law to be rewritten to accommodate their business models. They wanted a few things. They wanted to start offering cable TV to compete with cable companies. Great, right? Well, sort of. The cable companies are required by your local government to offer service to everyone in town, not just the rich neighborhoods. The telcos want to do cable TV, but not for everyone. They want to cherry-pick the best customers. They don't want to deal with the so-called "build-out" requirements your local government will demand (and quite rightly) to eliminate the nasty practice of red-lining poor and rural areas. Second, the telcos want to eliminate net neutrality once and for all. They want to plant themselves like a giant toll booth in the middle of the information superhighway. Cable companies would be fine with that too, since they'd have their own toll booths. This package of anti-public laws is sold under the moniker of "franchise reform." What you have hear with "franchise reform" is a rewrite of communications law to support 2 business models for cable TV and broadband: the telco and cable business models. That kind of market power is extraordinarily profitable. It's the kind of semi-monopoly power that requires serious consumer protections that these companies reject at all costs.
Long story short. They lost in Washington. Everybody else won. That's an incredible victory brought to you by 1 million real people across the country who fought for net neutrality with the Save the Internet Coalition.. Google might have helped a little too.
Here's where the drug lord analogy comes in. What does telco power do when it fails to win in Washington? It goes to the states. They believe they can get the same thing at the state level. They can convince state legislators that build-out and universal competitive cable TV services aren't important. And they can pretend net neutrality doesn't matter. If they win in enough states, then they will have effectively outflanked Washington. That's their strategy. They'll have what they want, and we'll have nothing. Worse, when they don't need things from politicians, there is nothing to extract from them in a compromise. So, they'll focus all their time on killing good things we'll try to get politicians to do.
So what do we have to do? We have to go to whatever states they go to. And we have to put net neutrality and build-out requirements into their "franchise reform". If we don't, they'll win. Simple as that.
So why does net neutrality have to be right in the middle of "franchise reform" bills? First, it's because "franchise reform" is a rewrite of communications law, and any such rewrite must contain net neutrality, or else we risk never having a big enough vehicle to carry it. You don't get two bites at the apple. Major rewrites don't happen often, and if major issues are left out, then they stay out. Second, it's because of the way telco power works. Once they have "franchise reform" in your state, they will have market power in your state. They will no longer need to ask your state legislature for anything big. And they will turn all of their lobbying clout against killing all forms of net neutrality that appear in stand-alone bills and brow-beating any legislator that stands up for it. If we succeed in passing a net neutrality bill against the odds, they will sue the state government that dares to pass it. And they could well win because state claims to jurisdiction over this issue aren't as good as federal claims. Which leads me to the next question...
Why does a state have power over net neutraity? Isn't the Internet national and global? Yes, of course it is. So are environment protections. But when the federal government won't fix a problem, states have to do it. If enough states do the job, the federal government takes note and moves on an issue. More importantly, it shows telcos that the states won't just roll over and service them. This is about who will stand up and say "no" to the telcos first. The federal government punted in 2006 and did nothing. Now the states will have the chance to do the people's work. This is politics. It's a competition for power. And we need our state legislators to represent our power so that we can stop the telcos by any means necessary and protect and open internet.
These are some seriously bad players. I'm hanging out with Chris Bowers tonight, and he's telling me how his West Philly neighborhood, because it's predominantly minority and mostly poor, has really bad internet and cable service. They aren't trying to expand cable service to the state, they are trying to cherry pick profitable neighborhoods to serve, and to wreck the internet in the process. They have convinced a whole lot of people to go along with them, because they have spent billions of dollars for decades.
What's frustrating is that InterrupT should not be wrong - good policy options should be debatable assuming good faith from various parties. But that's just not how these players operate, and we can't be charitable towards their intentions when it's very clear that their track record suggests they deserve skepticism. I hope that Granholm does the right thing and doesn't allow this bill through without net neutrality protections. If she doesn't, and this is the sad part of politics, no matter how much you like and respect her, if you use the internet, she has sold you out.