Emerging Digital Borders


New Mexico Fighters in the Title II Arena

—By Robin Brown

Former Albuquerque Mayor Martin Chavez has entered the net neutrality debate.

Advocates say the Federal Communications Commission should reclassify the Internet as a common carrier to preserve net neutrality. Chavez disagrees.

He’s a consultant at Ibarra Strategy Group, a lobbying firm in Washington, and has become a public figure in the ongoing net neutrality debate. He spoke in July at an event on Capitol Hill funded by network corporations like Verizon, Comcast and AT&T. He’s also been pressing FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler to stick with lighter rules in place now to regulate the Internet. Doing so would be in the best interests of minorities, according to groups that accepted funding from the telecom industry.

Chavez calls for light-touch regulation, which he says will allow the Internet to expand without restriction. “I don’t think anybody on either side is saying that all content ought to be treated equally,” he says. “There’s a distinction even today.” Video is prioritized over data online, he says, and Netflix uses a huge amount of available bandwidth.

Many minority rights groups—100 Black Men, Hispanic Telecommunications & Technology Partnership, Council of Korean Americans, and American Indians in Film and Television—weighed in against reclassification of the Internet as a common carrier. The Nation journalist Lee Fang says these civil rights groups just “sold out the Internet.”

No blocking, no discrimination and more transparency online are basic tenets of net neutrality, a principle that the FCC has been tasked with upholding throughout the Internet’s short existence. The commission’s authority to enforce these rules has come into question.

So the central point of this debate now is whether the FCC should regulate the Internet extensively like landline phone service under Title II of the 1934 Communications Act, or follow the lighter rules under Section 706 of the 1996 Telecommunications Act.

Interests at Heart

The League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) spoke in favor of 706, which calls for “measures that promote competition in the local telecommunications market, or other regulating methods that remove barriers to infrastructure investment.” With partners like NBC Comcast, Time Warner, AT&T, and Verizon, LULAC’s favor for 706 comes as no surprise.

The FCC lost twice in court against telecom companies that were citing 706 authority—once to Comcast in 2010 and again to Verizon in January.

Fibre-optic cable in a Telstra pit // Photo by Bidgee // CC-BY-SA-2.5-au

Ex-Mayor Chavez says lighter regulations would allow for investment and growth. “You’re talking about billions of dollars to lay fiber, to create the hotspot. Cities just don’t have that kind of money.” Private dollars have exploded the Internet, he says. “Those who support Title II haven’t demonstrated how it will promote competition, how it will promote investment, how it will promote access.”

Title II is an outdated regulation, says Chavez. “We’re dealing with an ever-changing technology, and we just don’t think it should be locked into the regulatory framework of 1936 phone systems,” he adds. “Everybody supports an open Internet. The disagreement is over how to accomplish that.”

Chavez says blocking websites by ISP has only happened a few times in the history of the net, and the FCC resolved it within days, he says. “It’s just not something that happens.”

Verizon is a client of Ibarra, where Chavez works. But Chavez says he has no telecom clients. Allegations connecting his position at Ibarra and his Verizon-friendly stance are “pretty silly,” he says.

Jessica Gonzales, general counsel with the National Hispanic Media Coalition, says it’s legitimate to point out the association: “I frankly think he works for Ibarra strategy group; Verizon is a client. It’s a conflict that he should disclose.”

A Boundless Frontier

Andrea Quijada is the executive director for the Media Literacy Project in Albuquerque. She says without net neutrality, there won’t be equity online. “These groups are saying that they are against discrimination, but that it’s OK for an Internet service provider to negotiate with a company or an individual to speed up content,” Quijada says. “That, in and of itself, is the definition of discrimination.”

In May, the FCC released a set of proposals that outlined how the Internet should be regulated in the future. Public protest and letters to the FCC have come in response to the agency’s suggestion to “permit broadband providers to serve customers and carry traffic on an individually negotiated basis,” which some say could lead to fast lanes and slow lanes on the Internet.

True net neutrality means that all content will be treated equally, Quijada says. “The Internet has no borders. We need to keep it that way. The insertion of fast lanes and slow lanes is essentially a form of border patrol.”

MLP and other media rights organizations want the net to be reclassified as a common carrier so the FCC will have the authority to prevent online discrimination.

Tim Berners-Lee is considered the inventor of the web. He Tweeted “This is for everyone,” which was spelled out in lights by the crowd at the Summer Olympics in 2012. —Photo by Nick Webb via CC 2.0.

With over one million public comments submitted to the FCC in favor of net neutrality (two-thirds of which call for Title II reclassification) and a whirlwind of lobbying events sponsored by telecom companies, FCC Chairman Wheeler faces pressure from both sides of the debate. “His legacy can be the lobbyist who sold out the American people to the Internet service providers or a person who stood up to them and did the right thing,” Gonzalez says. “They have never seen this kind of public engagement over such a technical issue.”

Local Reps

New Mexico’s Congressional delegation has been at the forefront of the open Internet discussion. Sen. Tom Udall has advocated for net neutrality for years. He opined in 2010 that the FCC should reclassify the Internet as a Title II telecommunications service to regain the authority it had to enforce net neutrality before Comcast defeated the FCC in court. “Opposition claims that this partial reclassification of Internet services amounts to a government takeover of the Internet are patently false and outrageous,” he wrote.

In February, Udall co-sponsored a bill to protect open Internet rules. Northern N.M. Rep. Ben Ray Luján signed a companion bill in the House. “It is essential that we keep the innovative spirit alive by ensuring that we have a system that does not block access to content on the web,” he says. Luján serves on the Communications and Technology subcommittee of the Energy and Commerce committee.

Sen. Martin Heinrich cosponsored the Online Competition and Consumer Choice Act of 2014 directing the FCC to prohibit preferential treatment or prioritization of Internet traffic. In June, Heinrich wrote a letter to Wheeler urging the FCC to hold a series of field hearings in New Mexico and across the country on new open Internet rules. “I believe public hearings provide an opportunity for everyone, including our most underserved communities, to voice their input directly to the commission,” wrote Heinrich in the letter.

While net neutrality legislation has yet to come to a full vote in either the House or Senate, Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham supports including public comments in the decision, says her spokesperson Eric Bontrager. “The Congresswoman is encouraged by the level of public engagement on the FCC’s proposal,” says Bontrager. “She feels strongly that a final rule must incorporate public feedback and ensure that every user has equal, unfettered access to the Internet.”

Both Heinrich and Lujan Grisham have not yet showed support for Title II regulation.

Steve Pearce voted for an amendment that would prevent the FCC from interfering with states as they create their own broadband access laws. Pearce had no comment for this article.

The Digital Divide

According to a recent report by the FCC, 19 million Americans still don’t have access to the Internet. Edyael Casaperalta with Center for Rural Strategies calls this the digital divide. The Internet is becoming a necessary resource to participate in society, she says, but many can’t afford it or even access it in rural parts of the country. Signing up for health care and insurance, taking tests, doing homework, and claiming Social Security checks are increasingly done over the net. Title II is the only way for the FCC to preserve net neutrality and require network companies to build out to rural and poor areas, Casaperalta says.

“The Internet Messenger” by Buky Schwartz in Holon via Wikimedia Commons

In rural areas in New Mexico, many communities lack access to the Internet. “Don’t break it before we even get it” Quijada says. There has been a gap between folks on the ground and those who claim to represent minorities’ rights but are fighting on behalf of corporate power over the net, she says.

She points to another time in history when the government decided the telephone was a necessary tool to participate in society. The Federal Communications Commission was founded in 1934, the same year it passed the Communications Act requiring phone companies to make service accessible and affordable for all Americans. “In order to provide service to every single person in our country, the FCC needs Title II,” says Casaperalta. “They need to have legal authority that can withstand lawsuits from corporations.”

In New Mexico, where many live in rural and tribal lands and still can’t afford access, the Title II debate is relevant. “Historically New Mexico and New Mexicans have always fought for our resources,” says MLP’s Quijada. “We know how to fight for land. We know how to fight for water. We know how to do that, and today we are fighting for the Internet too.”

Editor’s Note: Wheeler came to Albuquerque in June and spoke on a panel organized by MLP featuring Compass Editor-in-Chief Marisa Demarco. A clip of the panel meeting can be found here.