At midnight on Wednesday, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) shut its doors to public comment on the agency’s latest plan to gut net neutrality ― the basic guiding principle that makes the internet awesome, and prevents internet providers like Comcast, Verizon, and AT&T from charging extra fees, slowing access to websites and apps, or outright blocking online content.
The FCC’s deadline represents a milestone, but it’s far from the end of the fight. What happens over the next several months will have a profound effect not only on the the future of the internet, but on the future of democracy and freedom of expression.
As the FCC, lead in corrupt “comic book villain” fashion by former Verizon lawyer Ajit Pai, rushes forward with its plan to strip internet users of basic free speech protections, members of Congress who take big checks from Big Cable are plotting a follow-up attack. They want to ram through legislation that crushes the legal framework for net neutrality once and for all, disguised as a “compromise” they hope will look enticing once the FCC rules are slashed. They know that if bad legislation passes, reinstating real net neutrality rules becomes nearly impossible, or at least a tortuous uphill battle.
The situation is grim, and the stakes couldn’t be higher. But the severity of the threat has sparked a massive public response. Millions of people have spoken up on the issue, bombarding Congress and the FCC with phone calls, emails, and comments. The internet came together to crowdfund billboards exposing members of Congress who have taken massive campaign contributions from telecom companies in exchange for their support. Thousands have come out of the woodwork to volunteer and help coordinate a nationwide wave of in-person meetings, drop-ins, and protests focused on lawmakers who have crucial oversight authority over the FCC’s activities.
Meanwhile, the FCC has all but given up on appearing objective. Ajit Pai has huddled with telecom lobbyists while shutting out journalists and public interest groups. The FCC docket has been plagued with serious cybersecurity issues that the agency refuses to address, including what appear to be millions of fraudulent comments that the FCC refuses to remove ― even for individuals whose personal information was stolen and used without their permission, in violation of federal law.
“Net neutrality is the First Amendment of the net."”
The FCC is essentially sabotaging its own public comment process in what appears to be a cynical attempt to create confusion about where the public stands, despite the fact that poll after poll shows overwhelming support for net neutrality from across the political spectrum. That shouldn’t come as a surprise: no one, regardless of political views, wants the companies that connect us to the internet to control what we can see, and what we can say, once we get there. Despite this, the trend in unique, handwritten comments is clear: even a study paid for by the big ISPs found that 98.5 percent of unique comments oppose the FCC’s plan and support net neutrality.
Net neutrality is the First Amendment of the net. It keeps the web free from censorship and preserves its openness as a platform for the exchange of ideas, creativity, and opportunity. Without it, a few powerful companies would essentially become the editors in chief of the internet, with the power to stifle competition, shut down speech, and undermine innovation in the interest of short term profits.
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai clearly answers to his former employers in the telecom industry, rather than the public. But he also must answer to Congress, and they are supposed to answer to us, their constituents. Now is our moment to harness the power of the internet in order to save it, by demanding that our lawmakers do their jobs and speak out against the FCC’s plan to trash net neutrality protections that millions of us fought for. Every lawmaker in the U.S. needs to know that if they stand idly by and allow this attack on our basic rights to continue, they will be seen as enemies of the internet and enemies of free speech, and that that will come with a real political cost.
The internet has had a profoundly democratizing effect on our economy and our society. It gives more people a voice than ever before, and it’s one of the most powerful tools we have to shine light on corruption and hold elites, politicians, and powerful institutions to account. In this day and age, that’s a tool that we can’t afford to lose.
Evan Greer is a transgender activist, writer, and musician based in Boston. She’s the campaign director of Fight for the Future, the viral digital rights group known for organizing the largest online protests in history. Follow her on Twitter @evan_greer