Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Trump's FCC Ripped Away Open-Internet Protections. We're This Close to Winning Them Back

A majority of commissioners is set to return to the agency the authority it needs to act as a strong advocate for a user-powered internet.

Later this week, the Federal Communications Commission is expected to reverse a Trump-era decision that stripped away essential open-internet protections. In a Thursday vote, a majority of commissioners will return to the agency the authority it needs to act as a strong advocate for a user-powered internet.

They will do this by reclassifying broadband-access services as telecom services subject to Title II of the Communications Act. Title II authority allows the FCC to safeguard
 Net Neutrality and hold companies like AT&T, Comcast and Verizon accountable to internet users across the United States.

Title II authority gives the FCC the tools to make the internet work better for everyone, ensuring that internet service providers can’t block, throttle, or otherwise discriminate against the content everyone accesses online. But it also gives the FCC the regulatory means to ensure that broadband prices and practices are “just and reasonable.” The agency will be able to step in to stop price gouging, safeguard user privacy, protect public safety, eliminate junk fees, and stop other abusive behavior from providers.

During a Capitol Hill press conference last week, FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said, “There are a lot of things in this country that divide us, but Net Neutrality is not one of them.” Rosenworcel cited poll after poll that show that people across the political spectrum overwhelmingly support the 2015 Title II Net Neutrality safeguards that the Obama FCC put in place. The same polls show majorities opposed the Trump FCC’s 2017 repeal of these protections.

“Bringing back the FCC’s authority over broadband and putting back net neutrality rules is popular, and it has been court-tested and court-approved,” she added. “[W]e have an opportunity to get this right. Because in a modern digital economy, it is time to have broadband oversight, national Net Neutrality rules, and policies that ensure the internet is fast, open, and fair.”

Back to the future
The rules up for a vote on April 25 are identical to the 2015 rules. The FCC will enforce them in the same way. And the draft order text that the agency will finalize and adopt already makes this clear — in some cases, going further than the 2015 order did — with a chance before the vote occurs for the FCC to make this language even stronger.

Losing Title II hurt people, which is why millions protested the Trump FCC’s action. Not only did its 2017 repeal gut the Net Neutrality rules, it also surrendered the agency’s power to protect communities from unjust or unreasonable practices by these internet-access goliaths.

This had troubling consequences during the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic, when Trump FCC Chairman Ajit Pai asked broadband providers to sign a voluntary pledge to preserve people’s vital internet access (he couldn’t force providers to do this since he’d abdicated the agency’s authority to compel these companies to keep users connected). Despite Pai’s claim that the pledge was a success, reporting by Daily Dot found that many of these same companies still cut users’ connections during a national emergency, when everything from work to health care had shifted online.

A 2019 study by Northeastern University and UMass Amherst found that ISP throttling of network services happens “all the time.” Researchers analyzed data from hundreds of thousands of smartphones to determine whether wireless providers were slowing, or throttling, data speeds for specific mobile services. They found that “just about every wireless carrier is guilty of throttling video platforms and streaming services unevenly.”

In everyday terms, this means that companies like AT&T are picking winners and losers online. Allowing such throttling to continue opens the door to more content-based discrimination. This isn’t just about economic favoritism — for example, an ISP slowing down a competitor’s online app so people would use their product instead — but, potentially, the blocking of political messages that gigantic communications companies don’t like.

This isn’t a hypothetical. In 2005, the internet service provider Telus blocked access to a server that hosted a website supporting a labor strike against the company. And in 2011, the Electronic Frontier Foundation found that several ISPs were intercepting user search queries on Bing and Yahoo and directing them to “results” pages that they or their partners controlled.

The say-anything lobbyists
Lobbyists working for these large internet-access companies like to say that Title II authority offers “a solution in each of a problem” that doesn’t exist. And you can bet they’ll repeat a lot of these lies in the aftermath of this week’s vote.

Throughout the 20 years of debate around Title II and Net Neutrality, the powerful phone and cable lobby has demonstrated a willingness to say anything and everything to avoid being held accountable. They’ll say that Title II’s open-internet standard is a heavy-handed regulation that will undermine investment in new broadband deployment; in reality, executives from these companies have said publicly that their capital expenditures aren’t impacted in any way by Title II rules. The lobbyists will say that Net Neutrality is a hyper-partisan, politicized issue — ignoring public polling (see above) that shows internet users on the political left, right, and center overwhelmingly support the sorts of baseline protections offered under Title II.

The fight for this week’s victory predates the Trump FCC repeal of strong Title II rules in 2017. By restoring safeguards that millions fought so hard to make a reality, the FCC is recognizing the broad-based grassroots movement that coalesced in 2005 around the then-obscure principle of Net Neutrality and built a movement focused on retaining the people-powered, democratic spirit that was baked into the internet at its inception.

Without baseline open-internet protections, internet users are subject to privacy invasions, hidden junk fees, data caps, and billing rip-offs from their ISPs. In addition, without Title II oversight the FCC is severely limited in its ability to promote broadband competition and deployment, bringing this essential infrastructure within reach of people in the United States who lack access.

The FCC will change all of that later this week. It will respond to overwhelming public opinion and stand up for internet users against a handful of monopoly-minded companies that for too long have dictated media policy in Washington.

Come Thursday, I and many of the amazing advocates who’ve been fighting this fight for the past 20 years will be on hand at the FCC to witness the final vote. It will be a moment to appreciate our hard work and thank the agency for restoring to Americans their all-important online rights. Join us in celebrating!

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