Knowledgeable Net Neutrality Foe's 'Legalese' Angers MSNBC's Ali Velshi

December 17th, 2017 5:17 PM

On Thursday, MSNBC's Ali Velshi interviewed former FCC commissioner Robert McDowell about that agency's move to eliminate the Obama administration's "Open Internet Order," better known as its "net neutrality" regulations.

Velshi was in over his head, and as people who find themselves in such a situation often do, he resorted to hostility, bluster, and an accusation of condescension to try to make up for his repeated attempts to make a tired little-guy-versus-big-guy argument against the FCC's action.

Velshi's primary problem was that he can't or won't accept the idea that governance over the internet has returned to where it was during the over 20 years before Obama's FCC decided that the internet should be regulated like a century-old public utility monopoly, and that there are plenty of pre-2015 laws in place to prevent the alleged discriminatory disasters he fears.

McDowell knows better, and irritated Velshi immensely by repeatedly citing the key laws which will still apply to any genuinely anti-competitive activity by internet service providers and other players. He initially made his legal points in each of the opening snips which follow in the first of three videos excerpted from the interview:

Transcript (bolds are mine throughout this post):

(Snip 1, from 0:50 to 1:56 of the full interview video; HT Daily Caller)

ALI VELSHI, MSNBC: ... We may end up freezing the Internet in time, in that these big companies exist as big companies, and there will never be a competitor to Facebook or Google or Amazon.

ROBERT MCDOWELL, FORMER FCC COMMISSIONER: Right. So there's a lot of hype, it's very confusing and gets very legal very quickly.

So what the FCC did in February 2015 was put a 1934 law, the Communications Act of 1934, part of it called Title II, onto broadband internet networks.

But before that, that's when all those companies you just cited were actually started in dorm rooms and then became some of the world's largest corporations. And so they did that before this Title II thing.

So the term by the way, net neutrality, has no legal definition. So the question is, before February 2015, what worked? How did this ecosystem work to allow those entrepreneurs to do all that? And that was —

VELSHI: Right. But we didn't use as much bandwidth. Part of the issue was that everything we do now uses internet bandwidth. That's been coming over the years.

MCDDOWELL: And before February 2015 as well.

So you have the Federal Trade Commission Act, for instance. You have the Clayton Act and the Sherman Act. Those are three very powerful federal statutes that kept the internet open and free prior to February 2015.

(Snip 2, from 3:05 to 3:27)

VELSHI: (if I try to compete against one of the internet behemoths) Some (business) people will say, "Why would you ever use my service as opposed to the existing one that paid for the fast lane?"

MCDDOWELL: Section 1 and Section 2 of the Sherman Act, in section 3 of Clayton Act. You just triggered all three of those sections. It would be an antitrust violation. The Federal Trade Commission could go after them also under section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act. it was against the law before February 2015, and it will be against the law as of today.

Velshi's argument that expanded bandwidth use somehow justified the imposition of net neutrality three years ago, or that it should prevent its withdrawal now, is inane. Netflix has been streaming video since 2007, and streaming exploded during the next eight years before the Obama-era order appeared.

The key question is whether internet infrastructure going forward has been expanding as dramatically as it needs to in order to keep up with the needs and expectations of consumers and businesses.

The answer, since February 2015, has been "no." In an unexcerpted portion of the interview, McDowell noted that annual investment in internet infrastructure has fallen by 18 percent since February 2015, primarily because of regulatory uncertainty. That's why the just-issued "Restoring Internet Freedom" statement that "The Commission’s (2015) Title II Order has put at risk online investment and innovation, threatening the very open internet it purported to preserve" resonates.

In the next two snips contained in the second of three videos, Velshi began to lose patience, and then started to get angry:


(Snip 3, from 4:49 to 5:11)

VELSHI: I don't feel like or having a really, a really fair conversation here. I'm trying to have a conversation on the merits of the principle of unintended consequences of reversing net neutrality, and you're dropping a lot of legalese.

MCDOWELL: The legalese are the merits, though, Ali. So that's —

VELSHI: We know full well that sometimes the Federal Trade Commission doesn't —

MCDOWELL: That's what's at play here, and maybe you haven't read these laws. You don't understand them.

VELSHI: I'm very familiar with net neutrality, Robert. I'm really not that familiar with being condescended on.

(Snip 4, from 6:21 to 6:47)

VELSHI: The point is, for every point you make, I can make another one. It would be much more useful for us to have a broader conversation about whether or not there may be unintended consequences to reversing net neutrality. Right?

MCDOWELL: Okay, so why didn't the Obama DOJ —

VELSHI: We're not in a court of law right now. There's no judge in front of us.

MCDOWELL: I understand. But to your point, you're saying consumers are unprotected. That's not true.

VELSHI: I did not make that argument ONCE. I'm not sure why you think I made that. I've only made one argument, and it's about startups and entrepreneurs.

McDowell apparently did a good job of interview prep. Although Velshi didn't cite consumers in the "conversation" he claimed he was trying to have on Thursday, as seen in a November 21 video at MSNBC, he and MSNBC co-host Stephanie Ruhle have been very outspoken about the alleged impact of the FCC's move on consumers.

For those who would rather not endure watching that video, here are two graphics from their presentation which prove it:


"Everyone else" obviously includes consumers. So McDowell's assertion that Velshi believes that "consumers are unprotected" is true.

In reality, it's only true, as Velshi indirectly admitted in that November 21 video, if "some other agency doesn't enforce" its rules along the lines McDowell described. Why should anyone expect that career bureaucrats won't jump at the idea of carrying out their enforcement missions?

In the final two snips contained in the third video, Velshi tried the same argument again, and got the same law-based response — at which point he just gave up, accusing McDowell of not participating in the "conversation" he wanted to have:


(Snip 5, from 7:49 to 8:09)

VELSHI: If someone has an advantage in streaming their content over the internet, an established player has an advantage because they have the money to be able to buy better, faster, quicker access and prevent somebody else from getting it that — the incumbent is favored over the start up. That's the only point I wanted to make. That's the only point —

MCDOWELL: And that would be illegal, and that's the point I'm making. What you just said is already illegal.

(Snip 6, from 8:31 to 8:55)

VELSHI: This would've been and much better conversation we were actually having a conversation.

MCDOWELL: We are. I'm trying to teach you about the state of the law, which is what is going on.

VELSHI: Thanks very much. Robert McDowell is former FCC commission of 2006 to 2013.

MCDOWELL: Sorry, it's not a catastrophe.

VELSHI: Who said it was a catastrophe? I love the internet. I didn't say it was. (As noted, Velshi and Ruhle said just that on November 21. — Ed.)

MCDOWELL: It's going to be great.

VELSHI: I don't know who you're — Maybe he can't hear me.

MCDOWELL: I can hear you just fine.

VELSHI: Maybe he's hearing some other anchor arguing with him —


VELSHI: — because he's fighting a different battle than I'm fighting. I'm not actually having this argument with you.

So the "only point" Velshi had really wasn't a point at all.

Velshi was similarly rude and hostile towards another guest whose arguments he couldn't counter in August, when he condescendingly attacked a Donald Trump defender who contended that the President deserves a large share of the credit for the relatively strong performance of the overall economy and the stock market this year, telling him "You can't just lie on TV."

Cross-posted at