Federal regulators approved tough net neutrality rules today. Still, the fight for internet freedom continues, and advocates say public participation will be as important as ever.
It’s official: The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted today to reclassify the internet as a “common carrier” service under Title II of the Communications Act to enforce strong net neutrality rules. The vote marks a victory for internet freedom activists and a historic national shift toward treating quality internet access more like an essential public good.
Still, the battle over the future of the internet is far from over.
The FCC approved the rules in a 3-2 vote along party lines, with Democrats in the majority. The rules prevent internet providers like AT&T and Verizon from blocking legal content; degrading or slowing down their competitors’ traffic; and favoring traffic in exchange for special fees.
“The internet has redefined commerce, and as the outpouring from 4 million Americans has demonstrated, the internet is the ultimate vehicle for free expression,” said FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, referring to the 4 million people who commented on the agency’s net neutrality proposals over the past year. “The internet is simply too important to allow broadband providers to be the ones making the rules.”
The open internet debate has taken some twists and turns since last January, when a federal appeals court threw out the FCC’s last batch of net neutrality rules and sent regulators back to the drawing board. As public comments piled up and activists rallied across the country, Wheeler eventually shed the skin of a former industry insider and scrapped a milquetoast proposal in favor of a plan rooted in Title II, which advocates say gives the FCC the legal authority it needs to defend the rules against inevitable court challenges from the industry.
The Title II decision could also have a deep impact on the effort to hold broadband companies accountable to the needs of the public and close the “digital divide” that has left low-income and rural consumers, as well as people of color, with few options to stay connected.
“We are moving as a country to saying that this service is an essential service like [landline] telephone was, and so everybody should have the opportunity to get it. That’s what Title II does,” said Harold Feld, vice president of the consumer advocacy group Public Knowledge, in a recent interview with Truthout. “By making, as a society, the decision that broadband is an essential communications service, we are embracing our digital future.”
Depending on whom you talk to, today’s vote is either a victory for consumers, civil rights activists and a ragtag coalition of grassroots advocates that formed an alliance with Silicon Valley to take on the behemoth telecoms, or a government power grab that will turn the internet into a lumbering public utility and squash technological innovation and investment.
The truth is a bit more complicated, and it remains unclear if and how the FCC will use the new rules to hold incumbent telecoms like AT&T and Verizon accountable to the public. Here’s the good news: Like the debate that brought us to today’s historic ruling, the public can have a say in how this implementation plays out. In fact, advocates say public participation is crucial.
“[Today] we celebrate. Friday we get back to work,” said Craig Aaron, CEO of Free Press, one the groups that has spent years campaigning for tough net neutrality rules.
Aaron said the most immediate threats to net neutrality would come from Congress, where Republicans could introduce legislation that would defund the FCC, overturn the new rules or undermine the agency’s enforcement authority. Such legislation would face Obama’s veto pen, however, and industry-backed compromise legislation that would establish net neutrality rules but undermine the FCC’s enforcement authority has already failed to find bipartisan support.
“Congress is going to have to decide, and the Republican leadership in Congress is going to have to decide, if this is the thing they want to go to war on,” Aaron said.
Republicans are currently furious over the Title II reclassification, which they have billed as a government takeover of the internet that President Obama bullied the FCC into orchestrating.
The saber rattling was already underway on Wednesday at a heated committee hearing in the House that served as a perfect example of how net neutrality, an issue wrapped in industry lingo and fine print, is subject to such heavy spin that opponents and proponents don’t even seem to be talking about the same thing.
“The closer we get to the FCC rubber-stamping President Obama’s internet grab, the more disturbing it becomes,” said committee Chair Rep. Greg Walden, in a statement. “Consumers, innovators and job creators all stand to lose from this misguided approach.”
Walden is a Republican from Oregon who has received hefty donations from the telecom industry and cosponsored the GOP’s alternative net neutrality legislation in the House.
“What’s more, this plan sends the wrong signal around the globe that freedom and openness on the internet are best determined by governments – a far cry from decades of bipartisan commitment to light-touch regulation,” Walden continued.
Don’t worry. Obama will not be billing you for broadband anytime soon, and the new rules exempt broadband providers from certain utility-style regulations, like rate regulations, at least up front. By reclassifying the internet under Title II, however, the FCC has expanded its powers to intervene if it finds that internet service providers charge unreasonable rates or engage in unjust practices that fail to serve the public.
Larry Downes, an author and industry analyst who opposes Title II reclassification, claimed in his testimony before the committee that virtually every aspect of the internet’s infrastructure could soon be under government oversight.
“As Chairman Wheeler noted in his recent ‘fact sheet,’ the rulemaking will now, ‘for the first time,’ grant the FCC oversight of potentially every link in the connections between networks that make up the internet’s unique, engineering-driven architecture,” Downes said in his written testimony.
In fact, Wheeler’s fact sheet, released earlier this month to outline the proposed net neutrality rules, says that, “For the first time the Commission would have authority to hear complaints and take appropriate enforcement action if necessary” if it finds that interconnection deals between internet service providers and content providers fail to meet Title II’s “just and reasonable” standard.
“Disappointed parties will no doubt choose to invoke the agency’s new self-granted authority rather than continuing to rely on market negotiations,” Downes warned.
This is exactly why advocates like Aaron say Title II is so important. Internet providers have an advantage in “market negotiations” because they enjoy monopolies and duopolies in communities across the country, leaving consumers and content providers with few choices.
Under the FCC’s recently updated standards of what defines high-speed broadband, 82 percent of consumers in the United States have one or fewer options when it comes to high speed internet providers. This makes it tough to vote with your dollar and leave a company that is charging unreasonable rates, providing shoddy service or striking “fast lane” deals that make some parts of the internet more accessible than others.
“That’s why Title II is so important, it actually allows [the FCC] to respond to things that are going wrong in the marketplace,” Aaron said. “All the major providers have indicated that they want to discriminate . . . so we need some kind of recourse.”
The new rules also protect free speech online and ensure that everyone’s voice can be heard regardless of their economic status. For this reason, people of color and civil rights activists have rallied around the issue, because their movements rely on a free and open internet to organize, express dissent and address issues ignored by the corporate media.
“With the internet, net neutrality creates an opportunity for somebody other than the most powerful corporations to control the internet,” said civil rights activist Malkia Cyril in a recent interview with Truthout. “It creates some room for an everyday person like myself. I can’t own a TV station, but I can own a website.”
The FCC’s rules are not designed to change the internet as it stands, but to protect it from the future whims of profit-hungry broadband barons. Aaron said the “bright line” rules unveiled today would be shaped through a series of complaints and rulemakings. Depending on the scope, these will be subject to public comment, allowing consumers and tech companies to weigh in on issues like data caps and zero-rating as they arise.
“The FCC . . . is going have their radar up as well,” Aaron said. “The most powerful thing about rules like this is the threat to use them.”
The FCC also took a step toward promoting broader broadband competition by voting to intervene and challenge state laws in Tennessee and North Carolina that have prevented highly successful municipal broadband networks from expanding into neighboring communities.
None of this seemed likely a year ago when Wheeler, a fresh nominee of the Obama administration, began diving into the contentious issues facing the FCC. The chairman did something that advocates weren’t exactly expecting, however. When the people spoke up – and thanks to online activism, millions of them did – Wheeler listened.
“The internet has changed the rules for what is and what isn’t possible in Washington, DC, and politics in general,” said Evan Greer, an organizer with Fight for the Future, a grassroots group that galvanized public support for net neutrality with online campaigns. “It’s changed the rules for democracy.”