The new chairman of the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Ajit Pai wants to roll back net neutrality rules that act like the First Amendment of the Internet, ensuring equal access and equal opportunity for all.
Rolling back net neutrality would threaten the Internet we love and the foundations of a free society.
In a world without net neutrality, Internet Service Providers (ISPs) like AT&T, Comcast and Verizon could call the shots. They could set up Internet fast lanes and slow lanes, favor some websites over others, and even censor the net by denying customers access to websites that don’t fit the companies’ world views or benefit their bottom lines.
I know what some of you are thinking. You could get a VPN to get around unfair ISP restrictions. Maybe. Maybe not. In a world without net neutrality, your ISP might block your VPN, throttle your VPN speed, or coerce you into using its own VPN product. Would they dare? Comcast did.
We already have hints about how a rollback of net neutrality could negatively affect consumer privacy. Remember when AT&T tried to charge high-speed customers in Texas a surcharge to opt out of tracking? That idea was deep-sixed after consumer protests and scrutiny by government watchdogs, but AT&T is already dreaming about its resurrection.
Can you think of any bullies who would love this kind of power?
FCC privacy protections have already been nixed. Rolling back net neutrality would free ISPs to pursue Internet domination at our peril.
The FCC Chairman is selling consumers on a “deregulated Internet” by touting all the amazing progress that it could bring. (Progress at consumer expense, of course.) He’s also trying to quell concerns by calling on ISPs to practice voluntary net neutrality. “Voluntary” might work for the short term, but we would be stupid to trust companies that have such checkered pasts.
After all, big ISPs have shown their willingness to take the moral low ground by trampling voluntary “Do Not Track” standards. For example, Verizon has not only ignored “Do Not Track” requests, it used to inject persistent headers into its customers’ browsers (essentially zombie cookies) that allowed third-party advertisers to track its customers, too. Verizon stopped the shenanigans after it was caught, but reportedly was open to resuming the practice. You can read more about this here.
No doubt the rollback of net neutrality would be the perfect excuse for ISPs to resume anti-consumer practices. Why not? It’s not clear any agency would have the teeth to keep ISPs honest in a post-net-neutrality world.
Let’s keep the ISPs honest.
The primary reason ISPs aren’t behaving quite so badly today is because they are currently treated as US Title II common carriers, similar to landline telephone services. Title II regulations prohibit companies from arbitrarily denying consumers service or discriminating to favor some customers over others.
But all bets are off if Internet access is reclassified as a Title I information service as Pai proposes. Your Internet could slow to a crawl, and your favorite websites could be buffered out of existence. Companies with deep pockets could pay a premium for top shelf treatment and head spinning speeds, not to mention preferred access to customers.
This kind of speed and access discrimination could shutter startups and reduce competition. It could also serve as de facto censorship so ideas that are distasteful to the new rulers of the Internet universe could be marginalized and forgotten.
On July 12 the Internet rallied to stop the power grab.
Netizens and conscientious companies like Netflix, Medium, StartPage.com, Brave, Vivaldi, BestVPN, iFixit and organizations like Fight for the Future, Demand Progress, Free Press, Access Now, PrivacyToolsIO, the ACLU, EFF and many more united in a “Day of Action to Save Net Neutrality.”
We demanded a level Internet playing field where mom-and-pop shops and startups can compete with Fortune 500 companies and other power brokers. We championed an Internet where all voices can be heard and judged by all of us rather than cable company CEOs and politicians seeking to squelch dissent.
The people’s campaign was a great success:
- More than 5 million emails were sent to Congress
- Well over 10 million people saw the protest messages on participating websites
- The #NetNeutrality hashtag trended on both Facebook and Twitter
- More than 125,000 websites, people, artists, online creators, and organizations signed up to participate in the initial call to protest
Awareness was taken to the next level with celebrities flocking to support the effort including Pearl Jam, Wil Wheaton, Tim Robbins, Susan Sarandon, Blues Traveler, Steven Fry, Mark Ruffalo, Laura Jane Grace, Kendrick Sampson, Amanda Palmer, Ted Leo, Samantha Bee, and many more.
There was broad participation from every corner of the Internet, from online gaming communities to librarians to real estate sites to grassroots organizations to independent musicians.
Fight for the Future noted that the volume of participation was so high that the FCC had to “rate limit” comments into their docket, queuing them up for submission by the initial July 17 deadline. The same was true for comments to members of Congress, which had to be delivered over several days because of the sheer numbers.
Organizers were thrilled with initial estimates that over 2 million comments were sent to the FCC (nearly tripling the September 2014 “Internet Slowdown” record for most in a single day). But that number ballooned during the “reply comment period” that was to end August 16. Because of public pressure, the FCC was forced to extend that comment period to August 30. At this writing there is still a week left and already 20 million comments have been posted.
Activists up the ante.
Citizens have made it clear they will not cede the Internet to corporate interests, but FCC Chairman Agit Pai seems determined to ignore the public outcry. In response, activists have begun applying pressure to members of the US Congress by posting an online scorecard to let citizens know their representatives’ positions on net neutrality, organizing face-to-face meetings with representatives, and even erecting billboards shaming those who support Pai’s plan to roll back Net Neutrality protections.
Here’s what’s next.
The FCC’s next open meeting is scheduled for September 28, and activists believe the Commission will announce that their final vote on the net neutrality repeal will take place in October at the following open meeting.
We are hopeful that by the time of the final vote, political pressure will be so great that Pai and the FCC will have to relent. But even if they don’t, look for activists to continue fighting and for a spate of lawsuits to follow.
Together, we will beat back attempts to steal the freedom and diversity of the Internet we currently enjoy so it can remain the world’s biggest open market and the world’s largest town square.
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Image credits: siiixth/BigStock.com, georgepontinojr/BigStock.com, rogistok/BigStock.com, Fight For The Future