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Craig Aaron of Free Press says the fight to stop FCC chair Ajit Pai’s attempt to undo net neutrality, which protects equal access to internet content, depends on a resurgence of the grassroots activism that helped push it through in 2015.

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AARON MATÉ: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Maté. The Trump Administration’s rollback of consumer protection, now coming to your TV and internet. The Federal Communications Commission announcing a plan to weaken net neutrality rules approved two years ago. FCC Chair Ajit Pai wants to stop classifying the internet as a public utility, which subjects companies to tough regulation and encourages equal access. So, what does this mean for media and internet? Well, Craig Aaron is CEO and President at the Group Free Press — Craig, welcome. CRAIG AARON: Thanks for having me. AARON MATÉ: So this isn’t Chairman Pai’s first move to undo regulations, but this appears to be his strongest move to date. Talk to us about what he’s doing here. CRAIG AARON: Yeah, what he’s doing is completely trying to undo and undermine everything that was accomplished in a big victory at the FCC a couple of years ago. A victory that was the result of years and years of activism, and more than 4 million people contacting the Federal Communications Commission, to put a lot of pressure on the Obama Administration to eventually approve the strongest net neutrality rules; these, you know, basic protections really – the First Amendment of the internet – that makes sure when you go online, you can go wherever you want; do whatever you want; download whatever you want; and it’s not up to Comcast, Verizon or AT&T to decide which websites are going to work and which aren’t. Those rules finally got in place. The FCC finally stood up to those companies for really the first time maybe in decades. And now that the Trump Administration is here and has appointed Ajit Pai as the head of the agency, he’s threatening to just tear that all down. So, he’s started a proceeding to essentially get rid of the FCC’s authority to actually enforce these rules; and return all the gatekeeper power to your big phone and cable companies. AARON MATÉ: Craig, can you explain a bit more what exactly these net neutrality rules mean? When people hear about this stuff, like, for those of us who aren’t very well versed in media policy, it’s a bit tough to understand. And Pai says that these rules are taking away our internet freedom. So, how is he wrong? CRAIG AARON: Yeah, well, he’s wrong in sort of every way imaginable. This is a guy, a former Verizon lawyer, who thinks any kind of regulation or consumer safeguard is too much. But basically net neutrality is just a really basic protection. It’s just a fancy way of saying, no discrimination. It means that your phone or cable company doesn’t get to pick and choose which websites work and which don’t. It’s what makes the internet different from something like cable TV; where a cable company chooses what channels are going to be offered; which get put on the highest tiers; what’s easiest to find. That’s never been the way the internet has worked, where anybody with a good idea or something important to say, can actually go out and find an audience, and, you know, have as much reach as the biggest and most powerful media companies. That’s the beauty and promise of the open internet, and that’s what net neutrality protects. The internet that Ajit Pai and his friends and the phone and cable industry imagine, is one that looks like cable television; where they get to pick and choose; where they have gatekeeper power; and where they can make a lot of money by essentially setting up fast lanes to favor their own sites and services and those of their corporate partners. AARON MATÉ: So, say I’m an average consumer. I have, you know, the internet. I have a subscription to maybe something like Netflix. How would my usage be different before net neutrality and after? CRAIG AARON: So, in a world without net neutrality, it opens the doors to all kinds of manipulation and discrimination. You know, even in a world with net neutrality, very often the cable companies are messing around with those portals that take you to something like Netflix, or Amazon Prime, or you know, even watching something like The Real News Network. In a world without net neutrality, then your cable company is free to start interfering or discriminating; or what they really want to do is favor their own sites and services. So you can get Comcast News, or Comcast movies at a much faster speed; because they know that in this day and age – with so many choices for entertainment, or news, or sports, or what have you – that if you get that spinning wheel of death going across your computer screen, you’re just going to go do something else. And they want to control that experience. That’s not how the internet is supposed to work. So, you lose net neutrality, suddenly you’re going on trying to find this news show, and you get a notice that there’s a delay, but if you want to pop over to Fox News, that’s available right away. That would sort of be the extreme scenario. The likely scenario is that they’re going to do all kinds of things to mess around with your internet connection to give themselves a leg up, and they’re actually going to be largely invisible to the average consumer. But they’re going to all be things that favor companies like Comcast, or Verizon. AARON MATÉ Okay, so you mentioned Comcast and Verizon. Can you talk about what is sort of a battle of the monopolies here? On the one side you have people like Comcast and Verizon, and they’re fighting companies like Netflix. And the argument of someone like Verizon is that hey, Netflix is using our pipeline to stream all their content and they’re making tons of money from that. So, why shouldn’t we be able to charge more for delivering that service? CRAIG AARON: Yeah, and the reason is like, I’m already paying Comcast for them to give me that service. In fact, that’s why I’m paying Comcast or Verizon $100 a month, is so that I can have access to the kind of things that Netflix offers and everything else on the open internet. Comcast’s job is to just bring me that content. That should actually be their only job – is to give me what I want, when I want it. That’s how the internet is supposed to work. So, they shouldn’t be allowed to set up special toll roads, or charge people twice, or pay for the priority of delivery. That’s not what any of us signed up for and it’s way too much power in too few hands. The promise of the internet is that users should be in control. They should be the ones deciding, and they’re doing that; they’re paying Comcast to get on line, and maybe they’re paying for other so-called over-the-top services like Netflix if that’s what they want. Or maybe they’re seeking out content at YouTube, or anywhere else. That’s what we’re supposed to see on the free and open internet. And a powerful monopoly like Comcast that controls that pipe into your house, shouldn’t be able to use that pipe to dictate what you can watch, see, hear or read. AARON MATÉ Okay, so on that point, you mentioned earlier that part of the reason why we got net neutrality is because there was a huge surge of activism around it and organizing. So, I’m wondering, what does rolling-back net neutrality mean for the ability of people to organize, to protest on the internet, which is of course a huge venue for that now for everybody? CRAIG AARON: Yeah, that’s right. I’m so glad you raised that, because often, you know, we do think about – because it’s this sort of universal shared experience, you know, going on Netflix or watching YouTube. But the fact is, you know, you look around at what’s happening in the world of activism and organizing, and so much of that activity is sparked online. Black Lives Matter, probably being the best, but far from the only example. You can look at the Dakota Access Pipeline, and how people actually found out about that. And on and on and on, stories that in many cases were being completely ignored by the mainstream media, finding attention, finding voice online. People telling their own stories, using these tools like Twitter, Facebook, all of the video services, even YouTube to chronicle what’s happening; whether that’s police violence; environmental damage; you name it – all of that happening because of the free and open internet. I think, you do away with that free and open internet, and it becomes a lot harder to do that kind of organizing. Because you can’t count on the fact that, without net neutrality, that a Comcast or a Verizon might not interfere with that content. They might not take down that video if somebody challenged where it came from, you know, and there are issues with the platforms themselves. But the fact is that all of us need a Comcast, or a Verizon, or an AT&T, or another ISP to even be able to get online. If they can pick and choose what we get to; if they can make it that much harder to find independent content; then that’s going to undermine the ability for people to speak for themselves, and to do the kind of organizing that actually has a chance of resisting so much of what’s happening in Washington right now, you know, with Ajit Pai’s bosses in the Trump Administration. AARON MATÉ: You know, I think there was a certain symbolism in Chairman Pai unveiling his plan at a conference organized by Freedom Works, which is backed by the Koch brothers… CRAIG AARON: Right. AARON MATÉ Who have used, you know, their huge fortune to fund right-wing causes, and especially defeat regulation. So, can you talk to us a bit about what Pai has done, and how it fits into this broader right-wing assault on regulations? CRAIG AARON: Yeah, it’s been a very strange path, because in the early days of the net neutrality fight, I think people both on the right and left recognized that they had a real problem if all the power was put in the hands of big corporations. So, there are a lot of conservative types out in the real world that are like, “Why would we give more power to a Comcast or another big internet company?” But inside Washington this has become a very partisan debate. And these kinds of Astroturf groups like Freedom Works – groups that are just absolutely propped up with huge amounts of corporate money to do the bidding of powerful corporations, you know – they want to come after these essential protections like net neutrality, because they recognize if their bosses can control the pipes, it’s going to be a lot easier for them to put their message out. And they have this sort of ideological opposition to any kind of regulation or safeguard, if it involves reining in corporations in any kind of way. And I think that’s kind of the tradition that Ajit Pai comes out of, and he’s, you know, drawing very clear lines that, you know, he sees his job as the head of the FCC as doing the bidding of powerful corporations; and appealing to sort of these fringe elements of the right, that have done so much damage and pushed so many… both pro-corporate policies but also anti-immigrant policies; and have been the kinds of groups that are opposing the ability for people to gather and organize and protest. So, he’s sending a strong signal by launching this in front of an organization like Freedom Works. And you saw it in his speech. You know, he attacked my group, with some sort of vague assertions about some articles that one of our founders wrote a decade ago, essentially trying to red-bait us and tar us as if we shouldn’t be part of the debate. He’s not interested in debating the thousands and thousands of detailed legal and economic filings we’ve made at the FCC. He’s not interested in responding to the millions and millions of people who demanded these rules, you know. But he’s willing to kind of engage in this sort of character assassination, sort of neoMcarthyist kind of politics to try to advance this policy. Ultimately, I think that’s going to be a failed strategy, but it does give you a window into what these guys are up to. AARON MATÉ: Okay. So, on that point as we wrap, your group is going to be a big part of the pushback against this proposal. What does the process look like from here? And how can people get involved if they want to keep and preserve net neutrality? CRAIG AARON: Yeah, so the Trump Administration is trying to fast track this. Just today they released a notice of proposed rule making that they’re going to vote on in May at the FCC. This is the first procedural step in undoing net neutrality. So, the first thing we’re going to try to do is work with our allies at groups like Demand Progress, Fight for the Future, Color of Change, The Center for Media Justice, and others; to generate a million petitions against this terrible idea of getting rid of net neutrality, and starting to build public awareness. We’re also going to be out protesting, out in front of the FCC next month, to let them know how the people really feel about this, and really mobilizing those millions who spoke up in 2014 and 2015, because we need them now more than ever. This is something that’s going to carry on throughout the summer. Ajit Pai has talked about trying to get this done by the end of the year. And we’re going to do everything in our power to disrupt and stop him. AARON MATÉ: Craig Aaron, CEO and President at the Group Free Press — thanks, Craig. CRAIG AARON: Thanks for having me. AARON MATÉ: And thank you for joining us on The Real News. ————————- END

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Craig Aaron is the president and CEO of Free Press and the Free Press Action Fund in April 2011. He joined Free Press in 2004 and speaks across the country on media, Internet and journalism issues. Craig is a frequent guest on talk radio and is quoted often in the national press. His commentaries also appear regularly in the Guardian and the Huffington Post. Before joining Free Press, he was an investigative reporter for Public Citizen's Congress Watch and the managing editor of In These Times magazine. He is the editor of two books, Appeal to Reason: 25 Years of In These Times and Changing Media: Public Interest Policies for the Digital Age. He is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.