Net Neutrality Will Be Saved Only If Citizens Raise an Outcry

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FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler at a panel discussion in Washington, DC, on February 6, 2014 Photo Credit Kristoffer Tripplaar/ Sipa USA (Sipa via AP Images)
Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler participates in a panel discussion in this file photo in Washington, DC, on February 6, 2014. Kristoffer Tripplaar/ Sipa USA (Sipa via AP Images)

This post originally appeared at The Nation.

When Barack Obama was running for president in 2007, he earned a great deal of credibility with tech-savvy voters by expressing support for Net neutrality that was rooted in an understanding that this issue raises essential questions about the future of open, free and democratic communications in America.

Obama “got” that Net neutrality represented an Internet-age equivalent of the First Amendment — a guarantee of equal treatment for all content, as opposed to special rights to speed and quality of service for the powerful business and political elites that can buy an advantage.

Asked whether he thought the Federal Communications Commission and Congress needed to preserve the Internet as we know it, the senator from Illinois said, “The answer is ‘yes.’ I am a strong supporter of Net neutrality.”

“What you’ve been seeing is some lobbying that says that the servers and the various portals through which you’re getting information over the Internet should be able to be gatekeepers and to charge different rates to different Web sites,” explained Obama, who warned that with such a change in standards “you could get much better quality from the Fox News site and you’d be getting rotten service from the mom and pop sites.”

Obama’s bottom line: “That I think destroys one of the best things about the Internet —which is that there is this incredible equality there.”

Candidate Obama was exactly right.

So was President Obama when, in 2010, the White House declared that “President Obama is strongly committed to Net neutrality in order to keep an open Internet that fosters investment, innovation, consumer choice and free speech.”

And President Obama certainly sounded right in January 2014, when he said, “I have been a strong supporter of Net neutrality. The new commissioner of the FCC, Tom Wheeler, whom I appointed, I know is a strong supporter of Net neutrality.”

The president expressed that confidence in Wheeler, even as concerns were raised about an appointee who had previously worked as a cable and wireless industry lobbyist.

The president expressed that confidence in Wheeler, even as concerns were raised about an appointee who had previously worked as a cable and wireless industry lobbyist.

Now, barely three months after the president identified him as “a strong supporter of Net neutrality,” Wheeler has rolled out a proposal that our most digitally engaged newspaper, The Guardiandelicately suggests would “axe-murder Net neutrality.”

According to Los Angeles Times tech writer Jim Puzzanghera, the plan “would allow Internet service providers to charge companies for faster delivery of their content.”

Gabe Rottman, an American Civil Liberties Union legislative counsel and policy advisor who focuses on First Amendment issues, correctly explains, “If the FCC embraces this reported reversal in its stance toward Net neutrality, barriers to innovation will rise, the marketplace of ideas on the Internet will be constrained and consumers will ultimately pay the price.”

Wheeler tried to soften the blow by claiming that criticisms from public-interest groups, based on initial reports about his plan, were “flat-out wrong.” “There is no ‘turnaround in policy,’” Wheeler  announced. “The same rules will apply to all Internet content. As with the original Open Internet rules and consistent with the court’s decision, behavior that harms consumers or competition will not be permitted.”

But, after reviewing “the outlines of the proposal released by [Wheeler’s] office on Wednesday,” Puzzanghera’s “Tech Now” report explained that:

Although the plan would reinstate the agency’s prohibition against Internet providers from blocking any legal content, it would allow phone and cable companies to charge Netflix and other companies to put their content in a super-fast lane on the information superhighway.

The plan appears to violate a basic principle of Net neutrality that all similar content should be treated equally.

Tim Karr, of the media reform group Free Presssays: “All evidence suggests that Wheeler’s proposal is a betrayal of Obama and of the millions of people who have called on the FCC to put in place strong and enforceable Net neutrality protections.”

The Future of Music Coalition’s Casey Rae argues that any FCC initiative that establishes a model for speeding up delivery of content for paying customers is “not ‘Net neutrality.’”

The risk, says Rae is that, “the Internet in America will now be carved into a fast lane for well-heeled corporations and a dirt road for everyone else.”

The risk, says The Future of Music Coalition’s Casey Rae, is that “the Internet in America will now be carved into a fast lane for well-heeled corporations and a dirt road for everyone else.”

“These proposed rules not only don’t go far enough to safeguard consumers, they actively marginalize smaller and independent voices,” explains Rae, who says, “Artists, developers, culture workers, media-makers, nonprofit organizations, community, civic and church groups must tell the FCC that this isn’t good enough. We need real rules of the road for ISPs to guarantee that creative expression and entrepreneurship can thrive in the online ecosystem. FMC and our allies look forward to making this case in the upcoming rulemaking after May 15.”

Rae’s point is an important one. The process is just beginning. It can be influenced by content creators, consumers and citizen activists who understand that in this age of digital communications a broken Internet will lead to a broken democracy. It can even be influenced by the president and members of Congress, who ought to speak up, loudly, in favor of the right approach to Net neutrality.

There are two simple steps to take:

1. Recognize that there is a right response to court rulings that have rejected the complex and ill-thought approaches that the FCC has up to now taken with regard to Net neutrality. The right response is to reclassify broadband Internet access as a telecommunications service that can be regulated in the public interest.

When the FCC’s clumsy previous attempt at establishing Net neutrality protections was rejected in January by the US District Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, the court did not say that the commission lacked regulatory authority — simply that it needed a better approach. As David Sohn, general legal counsel at the Center for Democracy & Technology, notes, the court opinion laid out “exactly how the FCC essentially tied its own hands in the case and makes it clear that the FCC has the power to fix the problem.”

“The Court upheld the FCC’s general authority to issue rules aimed at spurring broadband deployment, and accepted the basic policy rationale for Internet neutrality as articulated by the FCC,” explains Sohn. “The arguments in favor of Internet neutrality are as strong as ever, but prior FCC decisions on how to treat broadband have painted the agency into a corner. Those decisions are not set in stone, however, and the ball is now back in the FCC’s court. The FCC should reconsider its classification of broadband Internet access and reestablish its authority to enact necessary safeguards for Internet openness.”

The approach that Wheeler is now proposing continues down the wrong course and actually veers into even more dangerous territory with its outline for a pay-to-play “fast lane” on the Internet. But this proposal can be altered or rejected by the full commission. In other words, the reclassification option can still be pursued.

2. Recognize that this is the time to send a clear signal of support for genuine Net neutrality. The FCC has listened in the past when a public outcry has been raised, on media ownership issues, diversity issues and Internet access issues. Wheeler is a new chairman. It’s vital to communicate to him and to the other members of the commission that President Obama was right when he said that establishing “fast lanes” on the Internet “destroys one of the best things about the Internet — which is that there is this incredible equality there.”

Dozens of public interest groups are already up and at it with a petition urging Wheeler and the FCC to “scrap” approaches that won’t work and “restore the principle of online nondiscrimination by reclassifying broadband as a telecommunications service.”

Dozens of public interest groups, ranging from the American Civil Liberties Union to the Government Accountability Project to the PEN American Center to Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting and the National Hispanic Media Coalition have urged the FCC to do the right thing. The “Save the Internet” coalition has a track record of rapidly mobilizing Americans to thwart wrongheaded moves by the FCC.

They’re already up and at it, with a petition urging Wheeler and the FCC to “scrap” approaches that won’t work and “restore the principle of online nondiscrimination by reclassifying broadband as a telecommunications service.”

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders says, “Our free and open Internet has made invaluable contributions to democracy both here in the United States and around the world. Whether you are rich, poor, young or old, the Internet allows all people to seek out information and communicate globally. We must not turn over our democracy to the highest bidder.”

Sanders is right about that — especially when he recognizes the vital link between technology and democracy. A free and open Internet is essential to modern democracy. But that freedom and openness will be maintained only if Americans use their great democratic voice to demand it.

There is a way to save Net neutrality. And if ever there was a time for citizens to urge the FCC to go the right way, this is it.

John Nichols is Washington correspondent for The Nation and associate editor of The Capital Times in Madison, Wisconsin. His most recent book is The "S" Word: A Short History of an American Tradition. A co-founder of the media reform organization Free Press, Nichols is co-author with Robert W. McChesney of The Death and Life of American Journalism: The Media Revolution that Will Begin the World Again and Tragedy & Farce: How the American Media Sell Wars, Spin Elections, and Destroy Democracy. Follow him on Twitter at @NicholsUprising.
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  • Anonymous

    Stop screwing with our internet! Use the link above & sign the petition at the very LEAST!!

  • Bill Catz

    This administration has two goals. One is to give the Internet away or, to control it giving their political party a distinct advantage when it comes to who gets what. Neither are good for the global health of the Internet. I have been active on the “net” for 20 years. I have watched the changes unfold.

    If America, and the world, want a truy free Internet, then it must be free of government and corporate control. As long as big cable companies, cellular corporations and telcos control who gets bandwidth and at what cost, the net will never be free.

  • Sue Em

    Former lobbyists should be barred from government jobs. Period.

  • Donatella

    Obama: I’m shocked. A former lobbyist for cable companies suggests killing net neutrality! Just shocking!” That could be a trailer to the updated movie, “Casa Blanca, A Lobbyist’s Dream”.

    Obama has been compromised by corporate money and the 1% (the Chicago Pritzkers and Crowns) from the very beginning of his political career. After all this time, how anyone can still believe the myth that he’s a president of/for the people is quite mystifying. He’s not just a continuation of GWB, he’s clearly worse and the majority of the left is hypnotized by his rhetoric and remains silent.

  • Alexandra Teodora Luca

    There’s a petition that was created a couple of days ago on whitehouse.gov. Not sure how much it will do but I think people should try anyway. They need 100,000 signatures by May 24th.

    https://petitions.whitehouse.gov/petition/maintain-true-net-neutrality-protect-freedom-information-united-states/9sxxdBgy

  • Anonymous

    Wheeler is Obama’s man. He needs to step forward and clarify his own position. Anyone who believes that tiered pricing of the Internet will not lead to ISP control of content in the long run is delusional. Phrases like “commercially reasonable” as used by Wheeler in his discussion of newly proposed Open Internet rules are legally meaningless in this setting. The fact is that tiered pricing of Internet access controlled by the ISP’s spells the end of Net Neutrality by any definition of the term. Wheeler and the President are deceptive if they do not acknowledge this basic fact. Furthermore, the entire regulatory issue created by the Federal Appeals Court ruling in January 2014 would disappear if the FCC had the guts to label the Internet accurately as a telecommunications medium. Apparently the White House does not have the stomach for the fight that would ensue by repairing the damage deliberately done by Michael Powell under GW Bush when they categorized the Internet merely as a digital information system. We need an honest and courageous FCC Chairman. Wheeler who was selected by Obama is neither and this is the problem in a nutshell.

  • lostinbago

    Not only did he come from leadership of cable association, he and former FCC head Michael Powell merely switched jobs and now Powell is president of cable association. It’s called the revolving door. But this one is exceptionally blatant.

  • Anonymous

    Can someone tell me: will this create a worldwide problem with the internet for all users, or just for American users?

  • Anonymous

    This is all getting a bit ridiculous. There’s no way we can play nice if we want real change. Everyone agrees we’re an oligarchy controlled by a select few. The idea has gone mainstream (yet again this week, #yawn-thank you Princeton). No one is going to listen until someone raises the bar & starts serving molotov cocktails. Voting doesn’t work when you’re only given false choices. Bring the boys home from the wars for profit & give them jobs a walmart- oh and by the bye- There’s way too much freedom of expression & ideas on that internet thing- The puppet masters needed to nip that in the bud. This sweet little suburban nurse is voting for a wake up call.

  • Anonymous

    No! America is the best government money can buy. Everyone spends all their time pimping everything and everybody. Money is everything. The 99% have no money…. So go back to sleep.

  • Anonymous

    There are still quite a few Americans — including those in church groups, non-profits and community organizations — who aren’t connected to the Internet, and who don’t know (or care) about the issue of net neutrality. So, what strategies can be used in order to get people who’ve never been on the Internet to care enough about its role in our precariously crumbling democracy, and encourage them to speak out and defend it?

  • Anonymous

    Please take the threat these ‘proposed’ rules pose seriously and speak up, speak out, be heard. It may be futile, given how corporate america has taken over all aspect of our lives. But, we must try where we can – even if in passing – with friends and family.

    This is NOT simply about rising cable/dsl/’internet’ rates or some ancillary debate about ‘market economies’. Without catastrophizing, this is the end of the internet as we’ve known it and there will be no technological ‘work-arounds’ or ‘hacks’ to get around what it means for producers of content and for consumers.

    Consider this: Can you imagine, with distance learning growing exponentially, a scenario in which students with money will be able to pay for the best quality service, quality that will allow them to better gauge the nuanced expressions of the professor, better, more visually appealing, study aids to accompany the class, HD video guides etc. vs the student who does not have money for the best content, images are blurry or less than ideal, study guides are provided but absent graphic richness etceteras….a very real possibility and these rules hasten our huge inequality problem and will only deepen the SES divisions.

  • Anonymous

    The ‘internet’ should be part of the commons – no question. It should be treated as the telephon was and as we treat police and fire departments. Not everything has to be about maximizing profit…nor monopolistic corporations.

  • Anonymous

    In developed countries with similar political systems…probably just us. Most of these other countries have had the good sense to take steps that promote availability of high-quality bandwidth (not the garbage we have in the states) at affordable prices. They’ve realized that ‘the internet’ will be critical for the future development of their nations….The U.S., as i’m sure you know, behaves exactly the opposite – the alter we pray to is greed, and the lie of ‘free markets’. Essentially, if we delay making the internet bandwidth distribution part of the commons we’ll fall further and further behind developed nations.

  • JonThomas

    Most of the developed world is still way ahead of the U.S. in providing internet service.

    Speeds, bandwidth… http://www.netindex.com/download/allcountries/

    Net-neutrality… http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/04/business/international/eu-lawmakers-approve-tough-net-neutrality-rules.html?_r=0

    However, what happens here can influence what happens around the world. Some countries may follow what the U.S. decides, other nations may attract innovation that will be hampered if net-neutrality in the U.S. is abandoned…. http://www.voanews.com/content/net-neutrality-debate-in-us-could-have-global-ripple-effects/1832561.html

  • Anonymous

    Dear FCC:

    I think it’s OUTRAGEOUS that you would even consider allowing crooks like COMCAST to FILTER, CONTROL, CHARGE HIGHER RATES to users of the Internet, especially since corporations like COMCAST have MONOPOLIES on the internet in thousands of areas across the U.S. where THEY are the ONLY choice for internet transmission… both for individual home users and BUSINESSES. This will effectively allow them to PICK AND CHOOSE which businesses (that use internet websites for sales and information) succeed and which businesses FAIL.

    ALLOWING THEM TO CHARGE HIGHER RATES to websites sharing content HAS ALREADY FAILED… in recent SCANDALS where COMCAST was SLOWING DOWN TRANSMISSION on content THEY DIDN’T LIKE.

    DO NOT ALLOW THIS. CENSORING CONTENT IS TANTAMOUNT TO THROWING THIS WORLD BACK INTO THE DARK AGES of INFORMATION SHARING. The effects of this will be FAR more reaching than economics…. it will be disastrous to HUMAN CONNECTION.

  • ccampbell

    i’m available to fight this one.

  • Publius Federalist No 10

    This is one of the last bastions of Democracy after the consolidation of the media into 5 huge multinational corporations to allow corporate control over the internet would be to allow 5 people to control all information. Having so few control essentially all information would be to render Democracy a joke. How can a populace form an educated opinion when they are only presented the views of 5 people all with a common interest. This goes against what our Founding Fathers stood for, read Federalist No 10 and tell me if you think Madison would think it was a good idea to let one small faction (5 people) control all information.

  • GregoryC

    Obama also selected FCC Commissioner Meredith Baker who served 2 years of a 4 year term, leaving early to accept a Comcast VP position post-Comcast-NBC merger. More revolving door politricks, corporatists from the Obama administration. Baker has worked on 21 bills on Comcast’ behalf, lobbying for the privatization of the internet and tax-free online purchases. If you still think Obama cares, you’re deluded. Obama is now on his ‘pivot to Asia’ tour working on behalf of multinational corporations to ensure passage of the TPPA.

  • GregoryC

    I signed the petition at Free Press. But until we fill the Washington mall with millions of Americans demonstrating their First Amendment rights of civil disobedience, nothing will change. It may not change regardless.

  • GregoryC

    And the reverse too. Members of Congress and their staff/aides, should be prohibited from working as lobbyists on Capitol Hill. Anyone with any ethical integrity wouldn’t have a problem with that standard of behavior. But we are talking about Washington, D.C.

  • Anonymous

    Don’t forget Keystone waffle,failure to eliminate Bush tax cuts, rolling over for the big banks. No, Gregory, illusions of a progressive president are long gone.

  • Anonymous

    Thank you.

  • Anonymous

    Thank you as well.

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  • Sai Das

    “majority of the left is hypnotized by his rhetoric and remains silent”. This simply isn’t true. What choice do and have we Liberals had? As bad as Obama is, he is better than any Republican or Tea Party choice. Were we supposed to have voted for Romney after Obama showed his true colors during his first term? Bad is still better than worse. We need a viable third party option.

  • Sai Das

    You are waxing nostalgically. I’m afraid those days are long gone. This corporate corrupted cancer has progressed to the point that our government has a terminal diagnosis.

  • Anonymous

    Totally agree. When looking at the total situation in the world i consider it a leaking ship in open sea in which many of the srew were given a task to deal with the symptoms of the leak and not the leak itself. All problems have but one source. The self serving interests of egos and the self serving interests of individuals, corporations, financial investors, nation states and unions of nation states are governing the world. Meaning the solution lies not in dealing with the outcome of egoity but egoity itself.