On February 1, 2019, the Washington DC Circuit Court of Appeals heard what is considered the most important legal case in the history of the internet. Its outcome, expected sometime this summer, will directly impact the flow of information and ultimately free speech.
The contested issue is “net neutrality,” i.e., a free and open internet that treats all internet traffic without discrimination, thus ensuring an internet environment that allows diverse ideas to emerge and flourish, giving people the opportunity to choose whatever best serves their interests. Conversely, a non-neutral internet gives service providers, who control the physical pipes connecting each one of us to the internet, the power to control the flow of information and ultimately the opportunity to shape our perceptions, our preferences and our decisions, whether political or not.
Consequently, net neutrality is vital to free speech and democracy itself. Since the principle of net neutrality was born in the US, it is ironic that a number of other free world jurisdictions, including the European Union, have endorsed the idea and adopted net neutrality rules, only to watch the US turn around and abolish its own.
At the heart of this critical legal battle is Pantelis Michalopoulos, one of the country’s top telecommunications lawyers. Michalopoulos is a partner and head of the regulatory practice at the prestigious Washington-based law firm of Steptoe & Johnson, a firm of more than 500 lawyers, with offices around the world. Born in Athens, Greece, in 1963, Michalopoulos is a third-generation Athenian, who traces his family history to the Ionian island of Zakynthos and the Peloponnese. A graduate of Athens College, the American College of Greece and the Athens Law School, Michalopoulos went on to receive his Master’s in Law from the University of Pennsylvania.
Michalopoulos has been a defender of net neutrality from the outset, representing the internet industry, i.e., information providers (including Mozilla, Etsy, and a coalition of Facebook, Netflix and many others), as well as public interest advocates, local governments, and others who support net neutrality. With Steptoe partner Markham Erickson and their team, including another Greek, Georgios Leris, they have taken on the powerful gatekeepers. Among others, these include AT&T, Verizon and Comcast, which are fighting against net neutrality for financial gain, if not for control of the flow of information.
And lest we think that this is a debate over lofty and intangible ideals and concepts with little impact on daily life, it is important to note that an internet that is not neutral, i.e., free and open, has real and practical consequences. It can make or break businesses and have detrimental consequences on several fronts, including emergency services and public safety. A prime example is Verizon’s slowing down broadband service while California firefighters were in the midst of a state emergency which required fast and open lines.
The battle over net neutrality was sparked in 2010, when the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC), on the basis of President Barack Obama’s landmark “Open Internet Order,” imposed restrictions on the behavior of internet service providers – giants such as AT&T, Comcast and Verizon. The restrictions were then contested and “ping-ponged” twice between the FCC and the DC Circuit Court, which finally affirmed them in 2016. Enter President Donald Trump’s administration, which generally shares the position of these gatekeepers about net neutrality being bad for business.
In 2017, the Trump FCC abolished the net neutrality rules, arguing that internet access should be considered an information service rather than a telecommunications service and therefore cannot be regulated. The ping-pong match continued with the online industry, which depends on the service providers for access to the pipes, challenging the FCC’s action in the same Court.
This set the stage for the aforementioned February 1, 2019 oral argument, described by one reporter as an “epic battle.” Michalopoulos has argued in favor of net neutrality before the Court in the past two cases, making this the third time he defends the open internet.
And yet, for all his responsibilities to his clients, Michalopoulos still finds time for a variety of cultural and intellectual pursuits, including authoring the legal thriller “The War of Art” under the pseudonym Philip Blackpeat.
An avid art collector, Michalopoulos is also passionate and quite knowledgeable about the visual arts. So much so that art permeates not only his daily life, but also his practice of law. The net neutrality hearing is a case in point, as Michalopoulos turned to art to illustrate his argument that it is odd for the FCC to classify internet access as anything other than telecommunications, when it seems to be the quintessential telecommunications means of the age.
Waxing poetic, Michalopoulos said the FCC’s decision calls to mind Rene Magritte’s “The Treachery of Images,” a surrealist painting of a pipe captioned “This is not a pipe” – in French, of course. The reference was certainly not lost on the reporters present. It not only hit the mark, but also spun its own art that made the social media rounds when technology news and media network The Verge created a take-off on the Magritte painting using the image of a USB, and averring that “it is not a pipe” either.
Michalopoulos’s knowledge and passion for art have also made him the driving force and artistic eye behind the art collection of Steptoe & Johnson, a collection that spans a variety of genres, eras, ethnicities and cultures. Featuring artists of diverse cultural and ethnic backgrounds from five continents, the Steptoe collection is as diverse as the world we live in.
Straying from the typical abstract and noncommittal corporate art, Steptoe’s “out-of-the-corporate-box” collection includes deeply moving figurative artworks, as well as beautifully crafted artifacts from the creative chronicles of history painting the realm of art with a broad brush – pardon the pun. Representing a rich cross section of multicultural and multiethnic talent, stretching across geography, history and time, the collection transcends boundaries, barriers and borders, and articulates the commonality of the human condition.
Included are modern and contemporary works by such stimulating and diverse artists as Romare Bearden, Lalla Essaydi, Andre Masson, Karel Appel, Martha Boto, Peter Beard, Vik Muniz, Zakaria Rahmani and others. Blending with the contemporary art is an eclectic assortment of works and artifacts which highlight how art is worked even into the most mundane aspects of daily life, using materials as diverse as nature itself. These include an aboriginal painting on eucalyptus bark, a Coptic textile, suzanis from Central Asia, as well as a stunning 19th century pirpiri or doulamas, a gold-thread embroidered overcoat from northern Greece, showcasing the melding of civilizations at the converging point of East and West.
The collection also includes and prominently displays the work of Paul Giovanopoulos, an artist of Greek origin, who was born in the northern Greek city of Kastoria and immigrated to the US with his family when he was 16.
In addition, Michalopoulos has led such initiatives as the (now defunct) American Friends of the Acropolis Museum. Over the past several years, Michalopoulos has collaborated with the Embassy of Greece, the Shakespeare Theatre Company, and other cultural and academic institutions to showcase and promote Greek culture. Among others, these initiatives include such popular events as the trials of Socrates and Lysistrata, with the participation of Supreme Court Justice James Alito, which attracted record audiences and highlighted the continuing relevance of the Greek classics. His client in both cases was his home city of Athens, which he represented arguing that Socrates corrupted its youth and that Lysistrata betrayed it. For the record, Michalopoulos lost against the formidable public relations machinery of Socrates, and won among the judges against Lysistrata.
Michalopoulos lives in Washington, DC, with his young daughter Charis, and his wife Cynthia Quarterman, Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Global Energy Center who was head of one federal agency, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, in the Obama administration, and another agency, the Minerals Management Service, when Bill Clinton was president. Cynthia shares the art collecting bug, and chairs the Art Committee of Washington’s National Cathedral School among a number of important philanthropic roles.
Returning to the issue at hand, predicting the future of the open internet would be a fool’s errand at this point. It is, however, reassuring to know that a fellow Greek is holding the fort.
Connie Mourtoupalas, exhibitions curator, former president of the National Hellenic Museum in Chicago, and cultural attache at the Embassy of Greece in Washington, DC.