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Tina Casey headshot

With Net Neutrality Under Siege, Millions Rally Online for Internet Equality

By Tina Casey

On Thursday, the Federal Communications Commission took steps to eliminate a key rule that shapes the Internet as we know it today. And millions of net neutrality advocates are springing into action.

The FCC proposal would enable Internet service providers to block or "throttle" selected websites, establish tiered rates, and otherwise interfere with the equal-access principle that framed Internet service for a generation.

Much of the organizing around the net neutrality issue is occurring online, a circumstance that hammers home the vital role that net neutrality plays in modern democracy.

What's so bad about "utility style" regulation of the Internet?

The opponents of net neutrality generally argue that the current rules treat Internet service providers like regulated utilities, stifling investment and limiting consumer choice.

The FCC made that point in its official announcement, which came in a press release titled "FCC Proposes Ending Utility-Style Regulation Of The Internet First Step Toward Restoring Internet Freedom, Promoting Investment, Innovation and Choice."

The agency elaborated in the first paragraph:

"The Federal Communications Commission today took the first step toward restoring Internet freedom and promoting infrastructure investment, innovation, and choice by proposing to end utility-style regulation of broadband Internet access service."

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai reiterated that view in his statement supporting the proposal:
"Today, we propose to repeal utility-style regulation of the Internet. We propose to return to the Clinton-era light-touch framework that has proven to be successful. And we propose to put technologists and engineers, rather than lawyers and accountants, at the center of the online world."

Did you see what he just did there? Pai starts his argument in the middle, without first establishing the basic premise -- namely, the implication that "utility-style" regulation is a bad thing.

"Utility-style regulation" is not necessarily a bad thing in an industrialized democracy. Regulated utilities are a means to an end. For example, the end goal of ensuring affordable water, sewer and electricity service across a broad swath of society is to protect public health and safety for everyone, wealthy and not-wealthy alike.

For that matter, Pai makes no effort to explain what the "center of the online world" is in terms of who gets to make decisions at the corporate level. It's not clear how he proposes to "put" technologists and engineers there, and what will they do once they arrive.

No, really: The FCC argument against net neutrality does not hold up

The dissenting view, provided by FCC Commissioner Mignon L. Clyburn, implies that Pai's argument is resting on a shaky premise.

Clyburn argues that the case against "utility-style regulation" amounts to the same discredited trickle-down theory of economics popularized by President Ronald Reagan. (The trickle-down theory holds that financial policies benefiting the wealthy will indirectly benefit everyone else.):

"Today’s Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, more appropriately known as the Destroying Internet Freedom NPRM, deeply damages the ability of the FCC to be a champion of consumers and competition in the 21st century," Clyburn wrote.

"It contains a hollow theory of trickle-down internet economics, suggesting that if we just remove enough regulations from your broadband provider, they will automatically improve your service, pass along discounts from those speculative savings, deploy more infrastructure with haste, and treat edge providers fairly."

For the record, the trickle-down economic theory still holds considerable sway over Republican thought leaders, even though it has been soundly discredited by researchers including experts with the International Monetary Fund.

Ars Technica reporter Jon Brodkin provides a detailed, point-by-point rebuttal to the FCC proposal and to Pai's statement.

In addition to framing an argument without establishing a premise, Brodkin says Pai also got his facts wrong. For example, characterizing Clinton-era rules as a "light touch" is the opposite of FCC Internet policy under Clinton, Brodkin argued:

"In reality, the Clinton-era FCC established far stricter requirements than anything in the current net neutrality rules," he wrote on Ars Technica last week. "At the time, line-sharing requirements allowed any company to offer Internet service over the same wires, giving consumers far more broadband choices."

Check out Brodkin's full article for more insight into the issues. Clyburn's statement is also a must-read for personal stories about the impact of net neutrality on daily life.

Once more unto the breach

An active and informed citizenry has already mobilized in a powerful series of reactions against Donald Trump administration policies on immigration, health care and climate change, and the Internet served as a key enabler and force multiplier.

Back in 2010, TriplePundit founder Nick Aster described the importance of an equal Internet platform for the U.S. democratic form of government, which provides the media -- the "fourth estate" -- with a vital role:

"The reason that you’re able to read TriplePundit right now, along with thousands of other small, independent publications is because the Internet remains an essentially unregulated, free market for ideas and conversation. No website can be given priority over another in terms of access or download speed."

Aster also emphasized the importance of net neutrality to businesses:
"If your company has a website, then your company is a publisher, or even a media company. Tom Foremski famously attests that in today’s world, ALL companies are media companies and should think of themselves that way. All of this publishing takes place in a new, modern commons known as the Internet."

TriplePundit's Marissa Rosen summed it up back in 2015, when the current net neutrality platform was established for the Internet:
"Open and free communication has always been critical for any social movement and, indeed, democracy itself. Net neutrality is an often misunderstood issue facing communication in the 21st century; it has come under fire from political and corporate interests and many advocates are fighting to ensure its survival."

The FCC is accepting comments on the new proposal until August 16, so now is your chance to weigh in.

The docket number is 17-108, and you can find a link to the comments section at fcc.gov/ecfs. As of this writing, the agency already received more than 2 million comments -- although critics say many came from bots.

If you're at a loss for words, the Electronic Frontier Foundation has set up a "Dear FCC" website that provides a boilerplate and tips on writing your comment. You can also sign the Free Press petition at Save the Internet.

Most importantly, contact your representatives by phone, email or post card (letters may not be advisable due to security concerns involving sealed envelopes).

Whether Democrat or Republican, all legislators need to know how important it is to ensure that Internet competition is fair, equitable and beneficial to consumers, nonprofit organizations, academic institutions and businesses of all sizes, no matter how small.

Image: courtesy of Electronic Frontier Foundation at dearfcc.org





Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

Read more stories by Tina Casey