Ever since the dawn of modern telecommunications, the American public has been guaranteed by law certain inalienable rights. The law that established the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the Communications Act of 1934, enshrined for all Americans the principle of universal access to communications services. Subsequent laws have expanded universal access from telephones to other services, such as high-speed Internet. There is a particular right of universal access to communications for those living in rural and insular areas, and low-income Americans. The other FCC law that guaranteed Americans the right of access to the communications conduits of the public commons, in this case, the public airwaves, was the Fairness Doctrine of 1949. The doctrine required holders of public broadcast licenses to provide honest, equitable, and balanced views of public importance. In 1987, President Ronald Reagan abolished the Fairness Doctrine in order to please the wealthy GOP donors who owned various media conglomerates.
Although the AM radio frequencies were soon gobbled up by the corporate syndicators of right-wing radio, including Rush Limbaugh’s daily blather, the advent of email and bulletin board systems provided Americans with the ability to access, over their telephone lines, independent information resources. After the development of the worldwide web, that access was expanded to websites offering a plethora of news and opinions on just about every subject imaginable. The FCC universality doctrine, as expressed in “net neutrality” regulations, ensured a level playing field for all who wished to establish a website or blog on the Internet.
Now, as with the demise of the Fairness Doctrine for the public airwaves, universal access and net neutrality for the Internet stand to be abolished if Donald Trump’s chairman of the FCC, Ajit Varadaraj Pai, has his way. Pai, whose nomination was pushed by Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY), is an opponent of the FCC’s Open Internet Order. He also opposes any role for the Federal Trade Commission in ensuring universal access and net neutrality for the Internet. As a former official for Verizon, Pai is beholden to those who want to turn the Internet into a pipeline for Verizon, Netflix, Comcast, Amazon, and others to stream videos at premium costs to the public. The Internet, if these infotainment media conglomerates and Pai have their way, will become “pay to play.” Top priority for bandwidth will be reserved by the FCC for multi-billion dollar companies. The end of net neutrality will also spell the end for independent websites and even small and medium market newspapers and radio stations lacking the means to compete with CNN, The New York Times, Fox News, The Washington Post, MS-NBC, and others.
Using the post office as an example, it would be as if magazines, at their peak, were afforded every postal service offered, including air mail, special delivery, and first class mail but individual users could only send mail via fourth-class mailing rates, with delivery taking weeks or even months. Fortunately, the U.S. Postal Service, like the telephone system, was built on the concept of universal access and service.
Pai and his Republican ilk want to relegate individual Americans to an Internet sub-network where slower throughput and rationed bandwidth are the rule rather than the exception. As with Reagan’s murder of the Fairness Doctrine and equal time for all viewpoints on the public-owned airwaves, Trump and his corporate brigands want to censor the Internet, by making high-speed and reliable access as unaffordable to the common folk as real estate on Fifth Avenue.
Much of the fiber that has been laid across the United States is within the confines of publicly-owned rights-of-way, including Interstate highways, streets, tunnels, bridges, subways, metropolitan rail lines, and public utility electrical lines. Furthermore, the microwave and satellite portions of the Internet backbone are carried via the public-owned airwaves. In other words, the public owns not only the Internet backbone but the research and development rights that saw the taxpayer-funded ARPANET become the present-day Internet. The Internet is not the private domain of Messrs. Trump, Pai, McConnell, Jeff Bezos, Marc Zuckerberg, or any other self-entitled corporate viper, vixen, or vampire. It is ours and it cannot and should not be taken away from us without a fight.
Click here for a fascinating series from 1981 on how AM and FM radio—in this case in the Washington, DC, market and with a diversity of content and ownership—was the “Internet” of its era. Reagan’s murder of the Fairness Doctrine and a subsequent right-wing corporate grab for smaller stations, killed radio as an information and multi-faceted entertainment source. Trump and his assassination of net neutrality will do the same thing to the Internet.
Previously published in the Wayne Madsen Report.
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Wayne Madsen is a Washington, DC-based investigative journalist and nationally-distributed columnist. He is the editor and publisher of the Wayne Madsen Report (subscription required).