Burger King produced an online video advertisement using the delivery of their signature Whopper sandwich to explain how an Internet service provider can discriminate against a non-preferred website or Internet service. You can watch the nearly three-minute video on YouTube.
In this ad, a Burger King location implements a tiered delivery system. One can buy a “premium” Whopper that comes with a higher Mbps, which of course for broadband means “megabits per second” but at this Burger King location means “making burgers per second.” When an irate customer questions the delay, a Burger King counter employee explains that Burger King prefers to sell chicken sandwiches and Chicken Fries (which are way less gross than I expected, by the way) so it offers those at a standard rate. However, if you want a Whopper, as many customers in this video want, you will either have to wait for it to come through the slow pipeline or have to pay an additional fee to have it prioritized.
The sandwich offerings at Burger King offer a clear, yet imperfect metaphor for the websites and Internet services that can be blocked or throttled by an Internet service provider. The chicken sandwich and Chicken Fries presumably represent the video content and websites owned by the ISPs or their parent companies. I previously explained that this is why AT&T is looking to acquire Time Warner’s vast media holdings and why Verizon and Comcast have already acquired content companies—Oath and NBC-Universal, respectively—over the last decade.
The metaphor falls apart somewhat because Burger King “owns” the Whopper as well as Chicken Fries, and, of course, they block access to other options. It’s not like you can walk into a Burger King and order a Diet Coke or a Big Mac. However, it’s not like there are places in the world where you’re stuck only ever going to Burger King or McDonald’s but never the other. You have a choice in fast food establishments (and other ways to procure calories), but you almost certainly don’t have a choice in your Internet service provider.
After a while, the customers in the video understandably get impatient, angry, and frustrated.
And some even get physical. A couple of customers grab and tug at the bag from the counter employee. As per Burger King policy, he is waiting until the arbitrarily imposed latency period on the Whopper has elapsed.
Basing a fast-food ad on a wonky communications policy, albeit one with significant real world consequences, seems counterintuitive and even unbelievable. Would anyone understand this? Would anyone get the jokes? Yes, of course. Burger King wouldn’t have bothered making this video if a lot of people wouldn’t understand it and wouldn’t get the jokes. Free Press’s Craig Aaron notes that the ad demonstrates just popular and widely know net neutrality is among young people. He writes, “right now Net Neutrality ranks high on the list of concerns of millennial voters — right up there with marijuana legalization. If nothing else, BK knows its target demo.”
A few months ago, I wrote about how Coca-Cola introduced OK Soda to expands it reach to customers who were presumably too jaded to drink Coke. In that post, I referenced a video and describes it as “postmodern.” While I preferred the term “self-referential” to “postmodern,” this ad uses the same technique. At the end of the video, there’s a self-referrential wink-and-a-nod to those in-the-know with when the King appears in the store’s parking lot and takes a drink from an oversized Reese’s coffee mug.
That’s a reference to Chairman Pai’s stupid oversized Reese’s coffee mug, which was featured in Last Week Tonight with John Oliver last year. Most people likely know about the mug as do about the impact of Title I versus Title II classification: that is to say, a lot of people know.
He often appears with this mug as a bit of “dad humor,” making himself seem jovial and self-deprecating, much like he did when he danced with a “wannabe Pizzagater” in a video published on a right-wing, junk news website. It is also an attempt to distract from his corporate friendly policies that threaten the public interest.
However, as I’ve regularly warned on this site, Chairman Pai’s regulatory actions, such as repealing net neutrality, eliminating broadcast ownership caps, and allowing right-wing ideologues to reach virtually every American household, are no laughing matter.
As I’ve mentioned before in a series of posts on this site, this is one of several deregulatory measures that this FCC, led by Chairman Pai, to give broadcasters and Internet service providers more power at the expense of consumer protections and the interest of the public.
Repealing the FCC’s net neutrality rules will make it possible for Internet service providers—your “beloved” cable and telephone company—to turn the Internet to something that could look like what we had with AOL in the 1990s: a closed network with curated content with limited access to the open Internet. The latter is what doomed AOL and its 2000 merger with Time Warner.
If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll know that AT&T is attempting to acquire Time Warner and its vast library of media properties and content. With net neutrality rules out of the way, a provider like AT&T can realize its vision to dominate the Internet. Tim Wu, who coined the term “net neutrality” predicted as much in his 2010 book The Master Switch. Wu writes:
it doesn’t take a genius to realize that if AT&T and the cable companies exercised broad discretion to speed up the business of some firms and slow down that of others, they would gain the power of life and death over the Internet.
The telecommunications companies can do this because repealing net neutrality rules reclassifies broadband Internet service providers from common carriers to information services. The days of Internet-as-we-know-it might be numbered. At worst, it will be something like AOL in the 1990s. Or it will be something like cable TV and its curated 500-channel universe. Both were information services.
Centralize All Broadcast Activities
But it’s not just the Internet that Chairman Pai’s FCC has given over to the major corporate interests; he’s also cleared the way for broadcast station owners to expand their reach through out the United States.
Back in April, Chairman Pai led the FCC to restore the UHF discount rule, allowing owners of all-UHF stations to reach as much as 78% of all US households. As I wrote earlier, the UHF discount rule was developed in an era when US TV households mostly watched VHF channels 2-13 over UHF channels 14-69. The Obama-era FCC eliminated that discount on the grounds that the rule was deprecated. There is no difference in terms of VHF and UHF stations in today’s multichannel TV environment.
Also today, at the same Commissioners meeting to vote down the net neutrality rules, the FCC voted to review eliminating the 39% TV station ownership cap rule. This rule, designed to keep one station owner from reaching too many people through broadcasting, was already a relaxed version of the FCC’s original seven-station rule. But Chairman Pai apparently wants to allow broadcast station owners to reach even more American households and further reduce the diversity of voices using the public airwaves.
Both the UHF discount and the give Sinclair Broadcasting and the “New Fox” the opportunity to grow the number of broadcast TV stations they can own and expand their reach to US households. Not only could this have some competitive implications, it also forebodes some chilling ideological consequences. It’s not unlike what the Nazi’s chief propagandist Joseph Goebbels wrote in 1933:
Above all, it is necessary to centralize all radio activities to place spiritual tasks ahead of technical ones, to introduce the leadership principle, to provide a clear worldview, and to present this worldview in flexible ways.
Both Sinclair’s and Fox’s owners are both staunch conservatives and supporters of Chairman Pat’s boss Donald Trump and their news coverage has consistently supported Trump’s policies.
Take Action on Net Neutrality
Although I realize that the tone of this post is downright dreary, we the public can still take action to restore net neutrality rules. Basically, it comes down to fighting Chairman Pai on two fronts:
We can lobby Congress to pass “net neutrality” legislation. Any action the FCC takes on classifying Internet service providers—as common carriers or information services—can be rendered moot through legislation. It might take until after the 2018 midterm elections to get this done, but legislation is the only way to guarantee an open Internet for the long term.
Take the FCC to court. This is less than ideal because it must protect net neutrality rules within the current legal framework, which is not very specific about net neutrality. Nonetheless, Free Press plans to file a lawsuit against the FCC. I don’t know their legal strategy, but it might be on the grounds that the FCC has unlawfully abdicated its authority over the Internet. A lawsuit would likely lead to an injunction to keep the current net-neutrality rules in place. After that, prevailing in court could keep the Internet open, but as I wrote above, legislation is the best way to do it.
We’ve been expecting the single, unlimited broadband package to go away someday—either through throttling your connection speed or by capping the amount of data you send and receive each month. What might happen now is there could be at least two tiers of broadband service:
a discounted AOL-type service where you get unlimited access to the content on that service
a prohibitively expensive rate for a somewhat open service, like what we have now
At any rate, Chairman Pai is basically giving the monopolistic Internet service providers the opportunity to become all-in-one information services. Remember most of America has no choice in Internet service providers and unlike in the past, when there was a national telephone monopoly and local cable TV monopoly, the government provided some level of protections against monopolistic behavior. Not anymore.
It really seems like the Internet will again be like AOL. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
The corporate lapdogs at the Federal Communications Commission are to announce this week—the week of the Thanksgiving holiday the United States—their scheduled vote on December 15 to eliminate the “net neutrality” rules that govern wired broadband Internet providers.
The timing of the announcement and of the scheduled vote is not accidental. The FCC is trying to sneak the announcement during a holiday week when the country is distracted and will take the vote on a Friday before the FCC commissioners presumably adjourn for 2017. As we know, because of Donald Trump, the FCC has three business-friendly Republican commissioners that will out vote the two Democratic commissioners. There’s every reason to expect the vote to be a mere formality.
Karl Bode posted a great essay on Techdirt about the vote predicting a strong public backlash against the FCC’s vote to kill net neutrality rules. I won’t reproduce his argument here, but I want to draw attention to the two reasons he foresees a revolt. First, the public overwhelming supports these rules because, as with the broadband consumer privacy protections the Senate killed earlier this year, this is not a partisan issue. Hardcore lefties and righties want these protective rules. Second, these rules will largely benefit broadband Internet providers: i.e., the deep-pocketed cable and telephone companies that rank among the most hated companies in America. Much like the Republican tax plans currently debated in both chambers of Congress, the benefits will go to the wealthiest and most powerful segments in our country. The rest of us will get screwed.
However, unlike Bode, I am less optimistic about a coming public revolt against this FCC and the broadband companies they are supposed to protect the public against. A lot of people don’t understand what net neutrality even is, much less other related concepts such as common carriage that are arguably more meaningful and noticeable to people on a day-to-day basis. The most immediate effect of ending net neutrality will be preferential treatment of partner services. As we’ve already seen, Netflix is fine with partnering with ISPs to ensure a clear path for its streaming video service. As long as people can still stream video on Netflix and Amazon, no one will really notice that their Internet will no longer be an open-platform.
Of course, the long-term effect will be much greater, even if its harder to identify. That’s because the next generation of Internet companies will have a harder time emerging. Someone might develop something we can’t even imagine yet that could threaten Netflix and Amazon’s dominance the same way each company all but eliminated the Blockbuster Video stores that profited with usurious late fees and the major chain bookstores that forced many independents out of business decades. But we won’t probably will never see those competitors emerge and, even worse, we may never even know they existed in the first place.
The votes that Chairman Pai has brought to the FCC over his first year as the Commission’s chairman benefit incumbents over future innovative upstarts. While this may have a short-term benefit for the large companies that employ thousands of workers and trade on the Dow Jones stock exchange, as Verizon, Comcast, and AT&T do, these actions will cost us in the long-term in lost innovation. The Internet communications revolution in the United States didn’t come from incumbent telecommunications companies. It originated from military, government, and university researchers working together—often in their spare time. Had we left it up to AT&T or RCA, our Internet would basically be AOL and what Sprint called the “wireless web.” As someone who remembers both these versions of the “Internet,” I wish I had never known they existed in the first place.
As expected, Chairman Pai’s FCC overturned the ownership regulations for broadcast stations that were instituted to curb a single voice from dominating the information landscape in radio, in broadcast television, and in print.
the newspaper-broadcasting cross ownership rule that prevented a single company from owning a leading newspaper and a broadcast station in the same market
the duopoly rule that prohibited a single company from owning two TV stations in the same market, outside of the four largest markets where there are at least eight separate entities in that market.
These rules—if confusing—were once even simpler: no single entity could own more than seven stations each on AM radio, FM radio, and television. The intent of these rules was to prevent a single voice from dominating mass-media information flows in a given market and across the entire world. Without considering any public input, Chairman Pai’s broadcast-friendly FCC has eliminated these rules to allow a single company a larger and more widespread audience.
The obvious beneficiary of eliminating these rules is Sinclair Broadcasting. The right-wing owned broadcasting company is trying to acquire Tribune Broadcasting, and because Tribune owns so many broadcasting stations in the United States, the newly merged company would have been forced to sell some of those stations in order to comply with these rules.
If you live somewhere where Sinclair does not have a presence, that is partly because of the FCC rules. The rules have worked to keep Sinclair from reaching the entire nation, thus (kind of) ensuring some kind of diversity in voices.
It won’t be long until you start seeing those right-wing editorials—that are centrally produced by Sinclair—and inserted into every local newscast across the entire Sinclair chain as “must runs.”
Because the ownership rules are from a federal agency—not actual laws ratified by Congress and the President—they can instituted and rescinded with the will of the FCC Chairman and the president who appointed him. In this case, this is a gift that Donald Trump and his lapdog Ajit Pai have given to big business. As I noted earlier, Sinclair is a friend of Trump and his policies.
If you’re not concerned that a single voice will reach nearly every household in the US, you should be. Recall that the one of the first actions that the Nazi’s took when they came to power in Germany was to centralize broadcasting. As Joseph Goebbels wrote in 1933, “Above all, it is necessary to centralize all radio activities to place spiritual tasks ahead of technical ones, to introduce the leadership principle, to provide a clear worldview, and to present this worldview in flexible ways.”
If you want to take action to prevent this situation, I encourage you to contribute to Free Press’s Action Fund. Ten bucks should do. They plan to sue the FCC in court to stop these rules from being rescinded, likely on the grounds that they unfairly grant one company a presence in almost every US media market. The rules were implemented for this very reason, and they were in fact working.
If you read my article and were convinced that these rules should remain in place, you might consider signing Free Press’s petition asking the FCC to not weaken these regulations. Because the FCC is headed by three business-friendly Republican commissioners and two Democratic commissioners, it’s almost certain that the FCC commissioners will follow Chairman Pai’s directive, vote along party lines, and weaken these rules.
While it might seem that this is a partisan issue, it really shouldn’t be. No reasonable person wants a small number of people controlling our broadcast media. A plurality of voices is something that, I think, we all should want, regardless of partisan identification.
This petition is one of the few ways that we can make our voices heard because the rules that the Commission is seeking to relax and rescind on November 16, are being considered with no input from the public. I told you that Chairman Pai is a shady character!
Back in 2015, I called then–FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai a corporate lapdog. He earned the nickname, in my mind, after he referred to his former Chairman, Tom Wheeler, as an “Obama lapdog,” although he didn’t directly make that statement. He had a few of his associates—Matthew Berry and Brendan Carr—do the name-calling for him. Pai and his proxies gave Wheeler this name because he sought to classify broadband internet service providers as “common carriers,” paving the way for what we commonly refer to as “net neutrality.” They accused Wheeler of being an Obama lapdog because he was following the pronouncements of the then-President of United States.
However, Pai, Berry, and Carr were truly acting like corporate lapdogs, following the commands of their masters in the broadcast and broadband industries. They were advocating on behalf of the telecommunications companies that provide broadband services at the expense of the public interest. Without net neutrality, ISPs can discriminate against certain websites and Internet services that might not be part of their corporate family or do not pay for “preferential treatment.”
Since Trump nominated Pai as Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, Chairman Pai’s FCC has done some shady things to further serve the interests of the broadcast industry, especially ones that support the Trump administration. Most notably, when the FCC was soliciting public comments on its website regarding its proposal to reclassify broadband as an information service, thus ending “net neutrality,” the FCC claimed that its public-comment website was down because it was the subject of a DDoS attack. It now appears that there is no proof that the site was attacked but instead was likely purposefully taken down to stop receiving comments from the public. During the last public comment period, the comments overwhelmingly supported net neutrality, which Chairman Pai is intent on dismantling.
Chairman Pai’s FCC has been even more active in working for the broadcast industry. Lapdogs, as we know, can be quite loyal. He has taken aim at three regulations that were instituted at various times over the last ninety years to curb the influence of broadcast station owners.
The first is the station ownership caps. The idea behind instituting station ownership caps is to prevent one partisan voice from dominating the broadcast media throughout the country. Before the 1980s, no single company could own more than seven AM radio, seven FM radio, and seven television stations. However, those rules have been relaxed over the past four decades. The current rules are a little complex but they basically restrict a single company from essentially reaching more than 39% of US TV households. By the way, the rules for radio station ownership are even more complex, but there are almost no ownership caps on radio stations.
There is one way to get around the 39% rule, and that is through the UHF discount. In the US, television stations are scattered across two bands: VHF (2-13) and UHF (13-69). VHF stations dominated the airwaves for two reasons. First, VHF TV signals travelled further than those of UHF TV stations and provided a clearly picture and higher-fidelity sound. Second, VHF TV stations were more widely watched because those stations were either owned or affiliated with a broadcast network and thus carried the most popular TV programming of the day. The UHF TV stations were exiled in a kind of TV “ghetto” and were rarely profitable.
In order to provide some equity between VHF and UHF station owners, FCC instituted a “UHF discount” in the 1980s. Since UHF TV stations didn’t have the same reach as their VHF competitors, the UHF discount allows owners of UHF stations to count their stations as having only half of their actual reach. This was because UHF stations were less popular than VHF stations. However, this also allowed owners of all-UHF stations to reach potentially reach 78% of US TV households, compared to the intention of the ownership rules: no single entity could reach more than 39% of US households.
If you’re confused by the 39% rule and the “UHF discount,” you’re not alone. I honestly think the broadcast industry and their lobbyists purposefully make it complicated so that the public can’t understand and advocate against the interests of broadcasters. Their interests and the public’s interests are often at odds with each other.
The UHF discount was abandoned during the Obama administration because the digital TV transition in 2009 made the difference between a VHF and a UHF station almost meaningless. In fact, most network broadcast stations use a UHF frequency that the FCC gave to them at the turn of the millennium. The reasons for implementing the UHF discount no longer exist and the FCC under Obama closed this loophole, although there was a “grandfather” clause for station owners who were the 39% rule during the UHF-discount era.
In April 2017, in a move friendly to broadcast station owners, Pai’s FCC restored the UHF-TV station discount. Now, a single company can again effectively reach twice as many households with UHF stations than if it had only VHF stations. It’s worth noting that one company, the Sinclair Broadcast Group, owns and operates many local TV stations—mostly on the UHF band—around the US, uses its outsized reach to “inject right wing political views” into their local newscasts, and is a vocal support of Pai’s boss, President Trump.
Also, Sinclair is trying to acquire television stations owned by Tribune. Without the UHF discount, Sinclair cannot acquire those stations without divesting of some stations or abandoning the merger altogether. Restoring the UHF discount clearly benefits Sinclair and would expand the reach of its right-wing propaganda. Chairman Pai’s move to restore the UHF discount has drawn the ire of one of his fellow commissioners. Jessica Rosenworcel has called for an investigation into the FCC and Chairman Pai’s “push for rules changes and policies that seem ‘custom-built’ to benefit the Sinclair Broadcast Group.”
The FCC has other rules to prevent the influence of a single partisan voice: newspaper-broadcast cross ownership rule and the TV duopoly rule. The cross ownership rule restricts a single entity from owning a newspaper and a broadcast station in the same market. Instituted in the 1970s, this rule also has a grandfather clause and allows for some case-by-case exceptions. Most notably, the right-wing News Corp was exempt from this rule, allowing it to own its Fox broadcast station (WNYW) and two newspapers—the New York Post and the Wall Street Journal.
The duopoly rule prevents a single company from owning more than one television stations. Again, this is to curb the influence of a single partisan voice throughout multiple television stations. Of course, those rules have been relaxed in the largest media markets—New York and Los Angeles, for example—where there remain at least eight different station owners. In those markets, almost all the major networks own more than one TV station.
WCBS 2 and WPIX 11
KCBS 2 and KTLA 5
WNBC 4 and WNJU 49
KNBC and KVEA 52
21st Century Fox
WNYW 5 and WWOR 9
KTTV 11 and KCOP 13
Chairman Pai wants rescind both these rules at the FCC’s next open meeting on November 16.
Rescinding these rules would be “great” for business, leading to layoffs and media consolidation. It would reduce the diversity of opinions in markets throughout the US and allow for committed partisan voices to influence local and national politics. If you wonder why our country is so politically divided, a lot of has to do with the waves of deregulation and consolidation that we have seen the 1980s.
Chairman Pai—and deregulators like him—claim that the rules are “out of date” or “obsolete” and that these ownership regulations should be relaxed or rescinded. But why stop at these “out of date” rules? Why not go after all the rules?
Chairman Pai has not yet targeted a couple of other longstanding rules. The dual network rule prohibits any of the Big Four networks—Fox, ABC, NBC, and CBS—from owning one of the others. This was instituted to prevent one network from wielding too much influence over the broadcast TV, as NBC did when it owned a Red and a Blue network. However, the rule does not prevent a network from either owning outright or holding a stake in a minor network. Fox’s parent company owns the My Network TV, and NBC’s parent company owns Telemundo. Chairman Pai is just getting started gutting regulations, and it’s not unreasonable to think that his FCC would relax or eliminate this rule.
Another rule that recognized the power of broadcasting was the citizenship rule. A broadcast radio or television station owner must be a US citizens. This was done to prevent a foreign power from influencing our country through these powerful communications media. Given that Russia already influenced our presidential election in 2016 using mostly Internet advertising and bypassing the entire broadcasting infrastructure, I don’t see why Chairman Pai wouldn’t also abolish this rule since it’s clearly “out of date.”
The FCC does more than just regulate indecent speech on broadcast TV and radio. One of its core missions is to promote the “public interest” and has historically done so by instituting regulations that limit the influence one person or company can wield using broadcast media.
It’s only been about fifteen years since I understood what the FCC actually does and have followed the actions of its commissioners. I also know the history of some of the FCC most famous commissioners, such as Reagan’s Mark Fowler and Kennedy’s Newton Minow. Trump’s Ajit Pai seems to be running the commission in the mold of John C. Doerfer—the FCC Commissioner under the Eisenhower administration. Like Pai, Doerfer instituted many rules and policies that benefitted the broadcasters, almost always at the expense of the public interest. Doerfer’s tenure as FCC Commissioner came to an end after it was discovered that he had accepted trips and gifts from industry executives. Doerfer was an extraordinarily corrupt commissioner, and he haunts the history of the FCC. Historians have even given Doerfer-era at the FCC it’s own name, and it’s not a flattering name.