Can You Hear Us Now?

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler is refusing to participate in any public hearings on Net Neutrality.

By Mary Alice Crim and Candace Clement

Mary-Alice-CrimCandace-Clement

On a recent Monday night in Brooklyn, five empty chairs stood on stage — one for each member of the Federal Communications Commission. A crowd had amassed in the room for a public hearing to send this message to the agency: Don’t hurt the open Internet.

But the commissioners’ absence sent a stronger message: We’re not listening.

The Corporate Fox in the Chicken Coop, an OtherWords cartoon by Khalil Bendib

When Corporate Foxes Mind Internet Coops, an OtherWords cartoon by Khalil Bendib

The FCC — the agency charged with regulating telecommunications — is expected to vote by the end of the year on Chairman Tom Wheeler’s plan to let Internet service providers (ISPs) offer “fast lanes” to companies that can afford to pay for speedier access.

Hundreds of businesses, organizations, and websites that rely on an open Internet have slammed the plan, which would kill Net Neutrality — the principle that requires ISPs to treat all traffic equally. Net Neutrality has made the Internet an unrivaled space for free speech, civic participation, innovation and opportunity. Without it, a few ISPs would become the gatekeepers of everything we do, say, and see online.

During the public comment period, nearly 4 million people— a record-breaking figure — weighed in on Wheeler’s plan. A whopping 99 percent of these comments oppose this proposal, according to one study.

Given the unprecedented public interest in this issue, many groups have urged the FCC to get out of Washington and host public hearings. But so far Wheeler has ignored this call.

In fact, the FCC has gone out of its way to avoid attending public gatherings like the one in Brooklyn. It’s been more than five years since all five FCC commissioners left Washington together to participate in a public hearing where anyone could testify.

These kinds of public hearings used to be commonplace for the agency, regardless of which political party was in control of Washington. But Wheeler’s FCC is different.

Instead of appearing at events with open microphones, Wheeler — a former lobbyist for the cable and wireless industries — has opted to attend industry trade shows. In fact, all five commissioners consistently attend the annual conventions of the cable, wireless, broadcasting, and electronics industries.

Yet somehow they just can’t find the time to meet with the public.

The FCC seems to fear hearing from everyday people who use the Internet to communicate, connect, learn, and survive. And while some of the commissioners have left Washington on a few occasions since Wheeler proposed his rules (Republican Commissioner Ajit Pai convened an official FCC hearing in College Station, Texas), the chairman himself has been absent from any public events on Net Neutrality.

“This is a real inflection point for us as a society,” says former FCC Commissioner Michael Copps, who attended dozens of public hearings during his decade in office and spoke at the event in Brooklyn. “The decisions they’re going to make between now and the end of the year are probably the most important that the FCC is going to make in a generation.”

The commissioners, Copps concludes, shouldn’t vote “until they get out of the Beltway and listen to the people who have to live with the results of their decisions.”

As the clock ticks down to a final FCC vote — which could happen as soon as December — the question looms large: Where is Tom Wheeler? And why won’t he meet with the people he’s supposed to serve?

Candace Clement is the Internet campaign director for Free Press and Mary Alice Crim is the organization’s field director. FreePress.net
Distributed via OtherWords

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Dancing Around the First and Fourth Amendments

The government can keep us safe from terrorism without stifling free speech, invading everyone’s privacy, and seizing our data.
By 

Timothy  KarrWhether you think spying is OK or not depends on your relationship to the information being collected.

If you’re on the gathering end, the invasion of someone else’s privacy doesn’t seem like a big deal. But if you’re the one whose private life is being pried into, this kind of surveillance seems like a very big deal indeed.

This dynamic is at work with the unfolding story about National Security Agency programs that vacuum up the telephone and Internet data of millions of people.

Free Press-Surveillance-The COM Library

To President Barack Obama, such wholesale spying is a necessary evil. “You can’t have 100 percent security and also then have 100 percent privacy,” he said. Senators Saxby Chambliss, Dianne Feinstein, and Lindsey Graham were among many in Congress who came forward to defend the programs.

Maybe they spoke too soon. Hundreds of thousands ofAmericans are responding in anger and demanding an end to Washington’s widespread surveillance.

This is why protections like the First and Fourth Amendments were enshrined in our Constitution in the first place — to shield people from such abuses of power.

But Americans aren’t being protected right now — because the people signing off on the laws are on the receiving side of the information divide. Many of them have lost touch with the privacy needs of the people they’re sworn to serve. To those in power, the intrusion into our lives is a tiny price to pay for a full-field view of the communications of all Americans.

And the range of data being mined is pretty staggering. According to reports in the Guardian and The Washington Post, the U.S. government is extracting audio, video, photographs, emails, documents, and phone-connection “metadata” that allow authorities to track any person’s movements and contacts over time.

This information includes data about people both abroad and at home who haven’t committed any crimes and have no connections with terrorist groups.

The Obama administration’s supposed authority to spy on all of us stems from its loose interpretation of the controversial USA PATRIOT Act and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).

Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act lets the government obtain a secret court order to collect “tangible things” that could be relevant to an investigation from businesses that hold user records. This vague wording has freed up intelligence officers to go after nearly any piece of information from anyone, including our Internet-search data, website-browsing patterns, telephone-contact lists, and even Facebook “likes.”

Section 215 does an official dance around the Fourth Amendment — which protects Americans from the warrantless search and seizure of property — by dispensing with the government’s burden of establishing probable cause before obtaining a search warrant. And FISA, which was reauthorized in 2012 under the FISA Amendments Act, allows the government to monitor the contents of foreign communications traffic — without showing that any particular individual is actually suspected of criminal conduct.

The resulting dragnet also threatens our First Amendment rights. People will be less likely to express themselves on popular services offered by Facebook, Google, and Yahoo if they know these companies are cooperating with government-surveillance schemes.

A coalition of privacy, Internet freedom, and free speech advocates has launched a nationwide campaign to stop the spying and clarify the laws that are supposed to keep our private lives private. The coalition has also called on Congress to launch a special investigation that would reveal the full extent of the NSA’s spying program.

While keeping Americans safe from terrorism is a noble objective, it can be accomplished without stifling free speech, invading everyone’s privacy, and seizing our data. We shouldn’t have to choose between security and our constitutional rights.


Timothy Karr is the senior director of strategy for Free Press. FreePress.net.  Photo Credit to:  The COM Library/Flickr  Distributed via OtherWords (OtherWords.org)