Dear Commissioner Copps: Thank You for Your Public Service

On Monday evening, the Hunter College Roosevelt House is hosting an event on media policy and reform, featuring former FCC Commissioner Michael Copps. Sadly, it’s in the middle of my Monday class, so I will be unable to attend — and it’s oversubscribed, so I can’t urge you to attend either.

Still, I’m really excited for my colleague Andrew Lund, who is leading the conversation with Mr. Copps, as well as the many Hunter students and faculty who will be able to attend. Thus, I wanted to share a bit about what I’d like them (and the world) to know about this great public servant.

To fully appreciate how exceptional Copps was as an FCC Commissioner, a role he fulfilled from 2001 to 2011, you need to know how thoroughly the Commission has traditionally been a “captured” agency — that is, generally doing the bidding of the industries that it was constructed, in principle, to regulate.

You should also know how the “revolving door” of government works: After working in government in a position of any real importance, many former public servants often take plum jobs in the private sector where they can leverage their regulatory knowledge and even their interpersonal connections to the advantage of their new employers.

Once he started his term at the FCC, Commissioner Copps knew that, after his time in government, he could easily walk into a plum job in the private sector. After all, this had been the route taken by many of his predecessors — as well as many of his colleagues who stepped down in the interim.

Unfortunately, when looking at the decisions that many of these FCC folks who turned that experience into very-well-paid private sector jobs, one could be forgiven for wondering whether many of them truly had the public interest at heart. Some of their decisions suggest that they were, at least in part, also thinking about their long-term earning potential. I won’t name names, but all of us who follow communication law reasonably closely know the most obvious examples.

When looking at Commissioner Copps’ decisions, however, nobody could possibly doubt that his true allegiance really was with the public for the full decade of his service. Media reform groups like Free Press and Public Knowledge finally had an unabashed, reliable ally with his hand on the levers of power, on issues from broadcasting to telecommunications to pluralism and diversity.

Want a sense of where Copps stands on the issues? Go listen to this interview with Democracy Now. Or this one. Read this collection of speeches or this collection of op-eds. Over and over again, you see him supporting the importance of using the power of the state to shape a more democratic, fair, and representative media system.

Copps is probably best known for his opposition to consolidation in ownership between media companies. He “was the one vote against approving Comcast’s takeover of AT&T’s cable systems in 2002” (p. 261), but this was just a warm-up.

The real sea change on ownership came in late 2002 and 2003, as then-Chair Michael Powell proposed a substantial roll-back in the rules against media consolidation. Copps and fellow Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein pushed to have substantial public discussion around the proposal, including multiple, well-publicized hearings. Powell said no — allowing just one hearing — so Copps and Adelstein went on tour, holding 13 unofficial hearings.

Through this and other efforts, working alongside public interest-minded NGOs, Copps helped bring major public attention to Powell’s proposal, ultimately bringing it to a halt. This slowed (though certainly did not stop) the process of media consolidation, through which ever fewer companies control ever more of our media landscape.

Copps has continued to be known for his opposition to media consolidation — though unfortunately, when Adelstein stepped down in 2009, Copps lost an important ally in the fight. Echoing the 2002 vote, Copps was the only Commissioner to vote against allowing Comcast to purchase NBC-Universal in 2011.

I would love to say a great deal more about Copps’ time at the FCC, but I’ll say just a few more words on one more issue: broadband regulation. He came in just in time to dissent from the FCC’s decisions to give away the keys to the kingdom on broadband interconnection, in the decision that led to the Brand X ruling by the Supreme Court.

The FCC ruled that broadband infrastructure companies — the folks who’ve used imminent domain and massive public subsidies as key tools as they’ve laid the cable, phone, or fiber lines over which broadband is transmitted — are not obligated to share their “last mile” systems with competitors. (This requirement for “interconnection” was already in place for landline local and long-distance telephone service, which led to an explosion of competition and plummeting prices.)

The Supremes held that the FCC was within their rights to make the decision, not that it had to come out that way; if Copps had won the day, we wouldn’t be dogging it in the horse latitudes of poor service, high prices, and slow broadband speeds as the world runs past us on all three counts. In the years after, Copps made the best of a bad regulatory position, serving as the most reliable vote for for mandatory network neutrality.

Again, though ownership and broadband policy are among his best-known issues, Copps was a tireless voice for the public interest on virtually every issue imaginable that came before the Commission. Even though he stepped down from the Commission over a year ago, he continues the work today.

Even as a former Commissioner who spent a decade being the thorniest thorn in the sides of those seeking to make a quick buck at the public’s expense, Mr. Copps could still quickly make a quick buck himself working for industry. There are a large number of companies, industry trade groups, and swanky D.C. law firms that would be quite happy to give him a huge salary, cushy office, and first class travel budget to speak on their behalf.

Instead, Copps has moved on to work for Common Cause, one of our nation’s strongest voices fighting for the best interests of ordinary people. This is just the latest in a long line of decisions in which he has chosen to fight for the public interest, even though it’s easier and more lucrative to fight for those who already have disproportionate money and influence.

For public interest advocates, Michael Copps was, at a minimum, the greatest FCC Commissioner since Nicholas Johnson retired nearly 40 years ago — and perhaps the greatest ever. His work at the Commission will be missed, but I look forward to seeing him continue to have a major role in pushing for a fairer, more just media system for many years to come.

One more point, for anybody who’s read this far: As of now, Copps’ Wikipedia page is a mere stump — the Wikipedia term for an article that is too short and needs to be expanded. In this case, a great deal more needs to be said in order to do its subject justice. I call on you to help me do this in the coming weeks. Mr. Copps was and remains a tireless and effective servant of the public, and this is but a small favor we can do in return.