Verizon lobbyists are canvassing Capitol Hill with a curious new argument against net neutrality—it hurts disabled people.
The odd pitch comes as the Obama administration is mulling a plan to scrap net neutrality—the idea that Internet service providers should treat all websites equally—and instead allow ISPs to create Internet "fast lanes" for companies that can afford to pay for speedier service. The proposal, which is under consideration by the Federal Communications Commission, has sparked a massivepublicoutcry, including an "Occupy the FCC" protest and a letter signed by 150 tech companies, including Google, Amazon, and Netflix, opposing the plan.
Three Hill sources tell Mother Jones that Verizon lobbyists have cited the needs of blind, deaf, and disabled people to try to convince congressional staffers and their bosses to get on board with the fast lane idea. But groups representing disabled Americans, including the National Association of the Deaf, the National Federation of the Blind, and the American Association of People with Disabilities are not advocating for this plan. Mark Perriello, the president and CEO of the AAPD, says that this is the "first time" he has heard "these specific talking points."
There's no doubt that blind and deaf people, who use special online services to communicate, need access to zippy Internet. Similarly, smartphone-based medical devices that are popular with disabled people require fast Internet service. Telecom industry lobbyists have argued that, without a fast lane, disabled Americans could get stuck with subpar service as Internet traffic increases. AAPD's Perriello says this rationale could be genuine but seems "convenient."
Defenders of net neutrality are more cynical. The Verizon lobbyists' argument is "disingenuous," says Matt Wood, a policy director at Free Press, an Internet freedom advocacy group. The FCC says that even if the agency doesn't go through with its fast lane proposal, companies that serve disabled people would still be able to pay internet service providers for faster service.
A spokesman for Verizon wouldn't confirm that Verizon lobbyists have used the disabled access pitch, but he says the company's position on the FCC's proposal is "not disingenuous." (Verizon has not taken a public stance on the FCC's proposed fast lane rule.) An FCC spokesman says the agency is evaluating the industry's disability argument.
The roots of the net neutrality fight go back more than a decade. In 2002, the George W. Bush-era FCC decided to classify the internet as an "information service" instead of a public utility, protecting internet services from the stringent regulations that land line phones fall under. For years, free Internet advocates urged the FCC to reclassify the internet, but the commission resisted.
Last month, the FCC dealt a major blow to net neutrality by proposing new rules that would allow Internet service providers to charge online content providers such as Facebook and Netflix higher rates for faster service. The move caused a national outcry. Last week, the FCC's website crashed after comedian John Oliver urged Internet "trolls" to comment at the agency's website. In response to public ire, the FCC has said it will reconsider classifying the Internet as a common utility.
The telecom industry is striving to ensure that the agency doesn't do that. In 2014 alone, Internet service providers have spent close to $19 million lobbying on net neutrality, according to Senate lobbying records:
This is not the first time the industry has cited the needs of disabled people as it sought to influence FCC rules. Verizon made this argument five years ago when the commission was drafting new regulations for ISPs. In a 2009 speech, former Verizon Communications CEO Ivan Seidenberg said that if his company was not allowed to prioritize certain medical data over internet traffic like email and spam, then people with health conditions might not benefit from life-saving technological advances.
The decision the FCC makes in the coming months could "change the course of the Internet for a long time to come," says Michael Copps, who served as an FCC commissioner from 2001 to 2011, "perhaps in ways that will be impossible to reverse."
Poverty in America remains stuck at record levels. But people who are poor aren't that bad off—because they can afford booze, cigarettes, and TVs, the car insurance industry said Monday.
The odd rationale was included in a letter to the Federal Insurance Office, an insurance industry watchdog, in response to a request for comments on whether auto insurance is affordable for low-income Americans.
The National Association of Mutual Insurance Companies (NAMIC), which represents half of the nation's car insurance companies, asserts in its letter that households in the lowest two-fifths of the income spectrum spend nearly as much on alcohol and cigarettes as they do on car insurance, and even more on "audio and visual (A/V) equipment and services." Therefore, the industry group says, "it seems implausible to suggest that automobile insurance is not 'affordable' for these consumers."
The Consumer Federation of America (CFA), a consumer advocacy group, calls the trade group's comments not only "offensive," but "factually incorrect." Here's why: Only about 19 percent of all low-income households spend any money on cigarettes in a typical three-month period, and only 22 percent spend any money on alcohol. When you average all low-income household spending, you find that these households spend about $102 more a year on car insurance than on cigarettes and alcohol, according to the most recent numbers from the federal government’s Consumer Expenditure Survey.
"Many households spend nothing on these products and this abuse of statistics reveals the underlying disrespect that many auto insurers have for low-income drivers," CFA's director of insurance J. Robert Hunter said Tuesday.
To fix this, a bipartisan group of Representatives introduced legislation earlier this year that would reinstate many of the VRA's voter protections. House majority leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.)—after trekking to Selma, Alabama on a civil rights pilgrimage—became the only member of the GOP leadership to back the bill, called the Voting Rights Amendment Act (VRAA). Now Cantor is out of the picture, and some advocates say that without his support, a voting rights fix is doomed.
"I think that Cantor’s loss is the nail in the coffin for the VRAA," says one Democratic House aide who has worked on the legislation. The GOP chair of the House judiciary committee has blocked the bill for months now, and conservative groups opposed to the measure have been making a ruckus. Now "there isn't anyone like Cantor... working to bring Republicans to the table," the aide says.
"I don't see other Republican leaders or candidates for Republican leadership showing any interest in picking up... that mantle," another House staffer adds.
Some voting rights advocates are holding out hope that Cantor will push the VRAA through the House before he leaves office. "It has been clear that his feelings on voting rights were grounded in his personal experience of going to Selma with [civil rights icon Rep.] John Lewis," says Estelle Rogers, the legislative director at the voting rights advocacy group Project Vote. "We hope he can now act…without politics clouding the issue."
There's still time. If Cantor convinces House judiciary committee chair Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) to bring the voting rights fix bill up for a vote in the next few weeks so that it can move through the full House and the Senate, there's a chance that the legislation could protect voters in the midterms this fall.
Cantor's office did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Some of the schoolgirls Boko Haram kidnapped in mid-April.
Blessing sits on the floor, knees into chest, in an empty room in Bukakotto village in eastern Nigeria. She's "40 something," but looks 25, and her face is scarred with tribal markings razor cut into her face as a baby. Just the day before, her sister was murdered. She went to her farm to look for firewood, Blessing says through a translator, and she was knifed to death by nomadic cattle herders with machetes. "They hacked her all over."
A pink and white scarf hangs off Blessing’s head, and she arranges and rearranges it as she speaks, looking straight ahead into nothing. "We picked up her corpse and buried it yesterday."
Blessing's sister is another casualty in Nigeria's long-running battle between mostly Christian farmers and mostly Muslim cattle herders over access to land. This increasingly violent clash is playing out alongside the Boko Haram terror campaign that has captivated the world since the group kidnapped more than 300 schoolgirls in April. On the surface, the two conflicts—which have both resulted in thousands of deaths over the past few years—appear unrelated. One is centered around Islamic fundamentalism, the other around grass and water. But look a bit further and you find that both conflicts are deeply tied to a massive ecological crisis that is breeding desperate poverty in the north of the country.
For centuries, the nomadic Fulani people drove their cattle east and west across the Sahel, the expanse of land just south of the Sahara desert. With the onset of a string of droughts in the early 20th century, Fulanis began to shift their migratory routes north to south. Land battles between nomadic Muslim cattle herders and Christian farmers were first reported about 60 years ago. The clashes have intensified since the start of another series of droughts beginning in the late 1960s that parched the land up north, driving more farmers and herders south for longer periods of time.
"They come [south] because of the nature of the climate in the north," says Mohammed Husaini, a Fulani herdsman and official with Nigeria's cattle breeder trade association. He's seated on a plastic lawn chair inside his spartan cattle vitamin shop in the eastern Nigerian town of Garaku. Just outside the open front door, a young man chants the Koran into the afternoon heat.
"The period of time that northern Fulani nomads used to spend in the middle of the country used to be December to May," he says. "Now it's December to June or July, and some nomadic Fulanis decide to just stay here." Why? Because, he explains, the grasses up north "don't grow totally" any more.
Mohammed Husaini's cattle vitamin shop in Garaku, Nigeria. Erika Eichelberger
Climate change has also contributed to the environmental changes in northern Nigeria, though it is not yet clear how much. Scientists are unsure, for example, how global warming has affected rainfall over the past few decades. What is clear is that the air over Nigeria has warmed by about 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit since the mid-20th century, and even more in the north of the country. Hotter temperatures mean that water is evaporating more quickly from Lake Chad, according to Chris Lennard, one of the lead authors of the most recent massive report from the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)—though he says the effect of evaporation is relatively small compared to the devastation caused by droughts and irrigation.
Hassan Garaba, a 24 year-old farmer and cattle herder who spends part of the year in the north of the country, calls the farmland up there "bakyau"—unfavorable. Three years ago, he harvested 30 bags of corn. This year, only 20. "The crops have been getting bad," he says through a translator. "Some just died off."
Elizabeth Warren is at it again. On Wednesday, the senator from Massachusetts and her colleague Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) called out the Federal Reserve—the US central bank charged with setting monetary policy and regulating big banks—for being too lax on financial reform, and urged the Obama administration to fill two open seats on the Fed's seven-member board with candidates committed to cracking down on Wall Street.
"As the events of 2008 showed, when the Federal Reserve and other financial regulators failed to engage in appropriate financial regulation, the results were the worst financial crisis in 80 years," the two senators wrote in a letter to President Barack Obama Wednesday. "Financial regulation and oversight obligations must be front and central to the Board's work."
The Fed's banking watchdog duties include imposing penalties on financial firms for violations such as inadequate money laundering protections and faulty foreclosure practices. Federal Reserve board members also vote on restrictions on CEO pay and rules governing how much emergency capital banks have to keep on their books.
This is not the first time that Warren has pushed the Fed to take its financial regulatory role more seriously. Earlier this year, she called on the heads of the central bank to stop delegating big decisions on bank oversight to staffers. Of the close to 1,000 formal enforcement actions taken by the Federal Reserve over the past decade, only 11 were voted on by the board itself. The rest were delegated to Fed staff, sometimes mid-level employees. In a letter to the Fed in February, Warren contended that the delegation of authority has resulted in bank penalties that are too lenient.
Last September, Warren and fellow Democrats on the Senate banking committee opposed Obama's plans to nominate former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers to run the Fed, citing Summers' work on behalf of the banking giant Citigroup and his past efforts to deregulate the financial industry. (Obama ended up withdrawing Summers' name from consideration.)
And at Fed chair Janet Yellen's Senate confirmation hearing in November, Warren told Yellen, "I’m concerned that [financial regulatory] responsibilities just aren’t a top priority for the board of governors."
In addition to the two Fed posts Warren and Merkley are concerned about, there are three other openings on the Fed board for which Obama has already nominated candidates. Those nominees are Lael Brainard, a former Treasury official; Jerome Powell, who has been a Fed board member since 2012 and is up for a second term; and Stanley Fischer, the former head of the Bank of Israel, whom the Senate just confirmed. There has been no real opposition by Senate Dems to any of these three nominees.