Michael Copps, who served as an FCC commissioner from 2001 until 2011, has put out a call to journalists everywhere encouraging them to "generate a national discussion on the future of the internet."
"For more than a decade I occupied a front-row seat watching government policy undermine your profession and our democracy," Copps says in a letter posted at Columbia Journalism Review. "Since I stepped down two years ago, the situation has only gotten worse." He's now extremely wary of Comcast's planned $45 billion acquisition of Time Warner Cable, a merger Copps claims would "run roughshod over consumers in the end."
"The internet is still an adolescent."
And Copps speaks from experience; he joined the FCC in 2001 in an era when the commission "seldom met an industry transaction it didn’t approve." Back then, the agency's carefree attitude towards consolidation allowed Clear Channel to swallow hundreds of stations and morph into the powerful industry force it is today. News Corp., Tribune, and other companies also reaped huge benefits — and eliminated many independent news channels in the process, according to Copps. This ultimately led to "merged stations reporting the same news by the same reporters."
But the worst pairing of them all was the merger of Comcast and NBCUniversal, he says. Those two companies coming under the same roof gave Comcast control of both "the medium and the message." Copps voted against the transaction — he was the only commissioner to do so — warning that it was "too much, too big, too powerful, too lacking in benefits for American consumers and citizens." Now he sees history repeating itself in a way with the announced Time Warner Cable buyout. And this time, thanks to recent court decisions, the internet is in even greater jeopardy. Copps encourages the FCC to reclassify internet services under "telecommunications" so it can restore strict net neutrality laws.
"It is testing time for the new FCC Chairman and his colleagues."
"The secret of a thriving internet is that users, not gatekeepers, control their online experiences," he says. Copps implores the FCC to shoot down mergers that will "wreak further havoc on our news and information infrastructure." (He counts the Comcast / Time Warner Cable deal among those.) And the agency must guarantee an open internet and bring affordable broadband to everyone. "Our country has fallen from leader to laggard in broadband," he says. This is another point he hopes can be resolved as part of a national dialogue on the web's future. "Perhaps the current controversy about an open internet will stimulate a broader discussion." Copps' full letter offers an interesting peek at his years in the commission, his disappointment with the current FCC, and his ideas for what should come next.