Net Neutrality

Net neutrality—the right to access all Internet content freely without your Internet provider slowing down or even blocking content at its whim—is fundamental to our democracy. As communities across the United States fight to speak out on contentious political issues, the citizenry needs to know that government-subsidized monopolies like Comcast, AT&T and Verizon aren’t dictating which website we can access.  ~Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF)

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(Image from Ars Technica)

You have probably heard the flap about John Oliver and the FCC.  While his comedic delivery might be entertaining for some, his recent video presents details of a potential threat to all Internet users. The threat involves a proposed alteration of current laws governing the behavior of Internet Service Providers (ISPs).  If the change is enacted, net neutrality might be in danger.

The current U.S. government has already stripped away the restrictions that once prevented ISPs from selling or providing access to our Internet activity and private information.  In 2015, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) determined that telecommunications companies should be classified as public utilities, subject to a set of rules referred to as “Title II”.  The ACLU declared this move a “victory for free speech”.  An outspoken Democrat, Harold Ford Jr., spoke out vehemently against the FCC decision, charging the FCC with overreach and further predicting an era of government micromanagement. Republican Commissioner Ajit Pai accused the FCC of “turning its back on Internet freedom”. (One wonders just whose “freedom” he was talking about).  The new FCC Chairman Ajit Pai—yes, the same (and a former Verizon lawyer) has recently proposed a change in the way ISPs are classified (reverting back to a Title I classification).  The proposed change is subtle and potentially confusing to many people.  Democracy Now! interviewed Craig Aaron (President & CEO of Free Press) who sheds some light on the issue. Kit Walsh writing for the Electronic Frontier Foundation presents a detailed article regarding the more subtle legal aspects of the proposed change.

The bottom line, according to Craig Aaron is this:

“The simplest way to think about it is that the free and open Internet and all that it offers starts to look a lot like cable TV, where a company picks and chooses the channels for you, decides what gets the best service, decides what’s available in a package, and everything that makes the Internet so great–that’s really in jeopardy. … Suddenly these companies will have free reign to interfere in however they want, often in ways that would almost be impossible for the average user to see or recognize.”

Advocates of the change dismiss the notion that the ISPs will do anything but provide the same service as before.  Chairperson Pai and others who support rescinding Title II restrictions propose that telecom company regulations are not needed, that the ISPs will police themselves.  Such statements fly in the face of numerous violations by ISPs in recent years.  These same advocates, take what appears to be the usual free market stance, proposing that current restrictions stifle infrastructure investment by telecommunication companies.  However, Public Knowledge an open Internet advocacy group, reports that these claims of stifled investments are unfounded. In a May 8th article Sara Kamal, writing for Public Knowledge, stated that contrary to the claims of FCC Chair Pai, “ISPs have no plans to decrease investment in their infrastructure. ISPs have been reporting to investors that investment is up, up, up! Verizon’s CFO, Fancis Shammo, told investors that reclassification to Title II “does not influence the way we invest.”

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Chairperson Pai has only filed a “notice of proposed rulemaking” which is a call for feedback from experts and the public regarding the issue.  The issue in question is called the “Open Internet Order”, referring to the changes made in 2015. Wired magazine reports that a poll conducted by the University of Delaware found the majority of both Republican and Democratic voters favor some form of net neutrality.  On the other hand, the Republican congress has been against the Open Internet Order since before it was enacted by the FCC when Tom Wheeler was its Chairperson.

As of the FCC open meeting on May 18th, the public will have 60 days to file comments.  A 30-day response by the public to the previous comments follows.  The FCC then must deliberate, weighing the comments. By its charter, the FCC is bound to act in the public interest.  Presuming the public is generally in favor of preserving the current Title II classification of telecom companies, if the FCC acts against public opinion by rescinding the Open Internet Order, the courts could strike down any reversal of previous FCC policy, deeming it “arbitrary and capricious”.  The process should be interesting to watch.  Can the will of the people—whatever that is–prevail?

What do you think? If you share the concerns many have begun to express regarding the future of the Internet, you might want to contact the FCC to express those concerns before that date. While there are many petitions being circulated regarding this issue, perhaps the best method of contact is to access the FCC website directly…or not.  Although the process was once quite simple, recent changes to the FCC site have created a navigation quagmire. But, no worries! John Oliver has created a weblink to make access easier.  Perhaps even simpler is to link to the EFF page which provides a prepared, customizable script which can be sent to the FCC right from the EFF site.

Take a stand!  Let your voice be heard!