By Elijah McGuire-Berk
Elm Staff Writer
On Thursday, April 3, The C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience hosted “On the Front Lines of the Digital Revolution: A Conversation with FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler.” The event was co-sponsored by the Department of Business Management and the Louis L. Goldstein Program in Public Affairs. The Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Thomas Wheeler gave a speech regarding previous revolutions within the field of communications and the role of the internet today and in the future. Wheeler was appointed the position of chairman by President Barrack Obama in November 2013. Before working as Chairman of the FCC, he authored the book “Mr. Lincoln’s T-Mails.” He was also an entrepreneur and venture capitalist involved in the start of multiple cable, wireless, and video communications companies.
The Director of the C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience Adam Goodheart opened the event with a speech about how honored he and the C.V. Starr Center were to host Wheeler. “He’s in that very small group of people who write about history and also know what it is to be making history themselves.” He also acknowledged the recent net-neutrality ruling. “[It] has been widely called a landmark decision for the future of the entire internet,” and it “has been putting Chairman Wheeler, whether he likes it or not, in the headlines almost every day for the last two months,” Goodheart said.
Wheeler’s speech dove in to the history of communication and its various revolutions. “We have always been a network-centric people,” he said as he described the evolution of communication networks. “Ours is actually the fourth great network revolution,” he said, citing moveable type and the printing press as the first, steam locomotives as the second, and telegraphs as the third. Wheeler pointed out that each of these revolutions came with fear and various attempts to stop them. “In the 1600s, the Vicar of Croydon preached a sermon in which he said, ‘We must root out printing or printing will root us out… Henry David Thoreau in ‘Walden’ said, ‘We don’t ride on the railroad, the railroad rides on us.’” Later he said, “The clergy in Baltimore started preaching from the pulpit that sending messages by sparks can only be Satanic, and Morse’s operator in Baltimore actually sent a telegram back to Morse in Washington suggesting that he suspend the trial because he was afraid there was going to be a riot.”
In regards to today’s revolution, Wheeler said, “A little bit of humility on our part is called for. I get a kick out of all the people saying, ‘Never before has there been such a great period of change’ baloney, baloney.”
He reminded the audience that this isn’t the first time change had occurred so quickly. He described the time when railroads and telegraphs were becoming popular and how it affected the people of that time.
He ended the speech with a question and answer panel. Net neutrality was a topic that he discussed. He said, “…we’re not going to regulate the internet like we used to regulate the internet,” as well as, “… there’s no way we can be as smart as the internet. There’s two guys and a dog in a garage somewhere that are going to change the way we use the internet. You can’t have government putting its second guessing in there.”
He said, “We want to make sure there’s a set of rules and that those who build and operate the networks have a reasonableness test they have to pass, that they’re not going to reasonably interfere with people’s ability to use the network and that they’re acting in a way that encourages the growth of the internet, encourages people to use the internet, encourages these two guys and a dog in a garage to keep pushing their new ideas because we know they can get access to the network.”
He described net neutrality as set of rules which prohibit the blocking/throttling of legal content, direct payment to networks for prioritized service, and that the ISPs must tell consumers what they’re doing and offering. It was grouped with what the FCC called, “The General Conduct Standard,” comparing it to the rules of a football game. Wheeler was in favor of net neutrality and said, “Saying net neutrality regulates the internet is like saying the first amendment regulates freedom of speech.” He ended by discussing what he can as the chairman of the FCC to keep the net neutrality ruling and to reclassify the legal definition of internet service providers.