What Losing Net Neutrality Means For Democracy

Widespread public outcry and over a decade of growing grassroots activism wasn’t enough to stop the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) from voting to kill net neutrality this week—which came down to a party-line 3 to 2 vote on Thursday.

The FCC’s historic dismantling of net neutrality not only signals a dangerous shift in the balance of power over the internet from the public to the telecommunications industry, but stands as a warning over how far the Trump administration is willing to go to make extreme and unpopular decisions with no public support. The most recent polling found that, when shown a policy briefing that explained the case for and against net neutrality, 83% of Americans do not agree with the FCC’s decision, including a striking 3 out of 4 Republicans.

The FCC’s vote reclassifies the internet as an “information service” under Title I of the Communications Act of 1934 rather than the existing Title II classification as a “telecommunications service” which means that the FCC is now barred from imposing neutrality requirements for Internet Service Providers (ISPs). Without net neutrality in place, ISPs can now block, throttle, or be paid to give preferential treatment, allowing wealthy and established media companies to cut deals with providers to gain greater control over users’ choices and experience.

The decision to kill net neutrality was made by Ajit Pai, a former lawyer for Verizon who was appointed to head the FCC by President Trump to carry out the administration’s broader goal of dismantling rules and protections put in place by the Obama administration. Ending net neutrality is major long-time goal of Verizon, Comcast, and other telecommunication giants which have given over $100 million in campaign funding for politicians from both parties over the past few decades, ensuring favorable legislation.

The internet’s success was built on the idea of creating an open and shared network that could be tapped into and built upon by individuals, businesses, and organizations alike, without top-down discrimination or preferential treatment by the private companies that owned the infrastructure. This platform neutrality was foundational to the internet itself, a principle termed “net neutrality” by Tim Wu in 2003.

Interest in protecting net neutrality grew as corporations and the telecom industry began to break with this legacy, hurting rivals while promoting their own content and services. Net neutrality activism became part of the broader movement protect the internet from encroaching corporate control, epitomized by the “Internet Blackout” of 2012, the mass protest against copyright legislation known as SOPA and PIPA which would have allowed ISPs to block websites over “infringing content”, including user-generated material. On January 28, thousands of websites and platforms “blacked out” their names or functions and helped gather over 14 million petition signatures—within days the bills’ dozens of co-sponsors dropped their support, stopping the bills cold and marking the successful protest as a milestone in digital activism.

In 2014, open internet activists working with supportive tech platforms like Reddit, Vimeo and Tumblr and helped by high-profile support of John Oliver and other celebrities inspired millions of people to contact the FCC to argue in favor of protecting net neutrality once and for all. Activists were responding to a recent court case brought on by Verizon that stripped the FCC of much of their existing regulatory power over ISPs. With the support of president Obama, then FCC chairman Tom Wheeler led a vote to reclassify the internet under title II, establishing a clear authority to regulate ISPs in the protection of net neutrality—although only for broadband.

The telecom industry and the Trump-controlled FCC clearly learned their lesson from activists’ victories in 2012 and 2014. Amid coverage of the Republican tax reform, the #MeToo movement, the Alabama special election, the Mueller investigation, and the near-constant distraction of president Trump’s tweets, the FCC’s Ajit Pai saw an opportunity to dismantle net neutrality, knowing activists would fight back but would have a much harder time galvanizing public attention.

The FCC announced their plan two days before Thanksgiving, ensuring that inevitable headlines like “FCC plan would give Internet providers power to choose sites customers see and use” (The Washington Post, 11/21/17), or “FCC Plan Net Neutrality Repeal in Victory for Telecoms (The New York Times, 11/21/17)” would have less impact. Similarly, the FCC scheduled their vote for December 14th, with Americans busy shopping and preparing for the holidays.

Beyond the FCC’s strategic scheduling, there remains the fact that most of our traditional major media outlets are owned by many of the same corporate conglomerates that want to get rid of net neutrality. Media watch group Media Matters looked at coverage of net neutrality from November 20 – 27th, the week following news reports of FCC commissioner Ajit Pai’s plans vote for reclassification. During the eight-day period of their study, Media Matters found that net neutrality received total of 2 minutes of coverage on CBS News, 25 seconds on ABC News (a single mention by David Muir), and zero coverage on NBC News—which is owned by Comcast, one of the leading telecommunication conglomerates pushing to repeal net neutrality. Cable news was not much better, with the exception of Rachel Maddow who devoted an entire hour-long segment to net neutrality on MSNBC.

Despite this news media blackout, millions of Americans signed petitions and submitted comments to the FCC in support of net neutrality. In 2014, led by popular online platforms like Reddit, Twitter, and Oliver’s call to arms, 3.7 million comments were submitted to the FCC, of which a New York Times analysis found only 1% were clearly against net neutrality, the rest were either for net neutrality or generally in support of a free and open internet.

Since Pai took over as chairman of the FCC and signaled his intent to gut net neutrality, millions of more comments have been submitted to the FCC, a number so high it drew concerns over the use of bots and potential abuse. New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman launched an investigation into a possible massive scheme to corrupt the FCC’s comment system, including over a million comments submitted under fake names, and almost half a million that originate from Russian email addresses. FCC commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel along with 28 senators had called for a delay in voting to give the investigation more time.

The glaring lack of public support for killing net neutrality, along with Pai’s refusal to contend with the FCC’s broken and corrupted comments system before voting sets a dangerous precedent for other Trump controlled federal agencies, make sweeping decisions without a working system for accounting for public comments and input.

President Trump, unsurprisingly, appears to have no clue what net neutrality is and hasn’t said much about it publicly, except a single 2014 tweet in which he wrote “Obama’s attack on the internet is another top down power grab. Net neutrality is the Fairness Doctrine. Will target conservative media” – none of which makes any sense. According to a more recent statement by then-press secretary Sean Spicer in March, president Trump pledged to reverse the net neutrality decision, due to what Spicer described as the “overreach” of Obama-era rule making.

To say that Trump’s FCC is acting with complete disregard for public input would not be an exaggeration. Where exactly is there an identifiable anti-net neutrality grassroots movement? The numerous grass-roots organizations that work to protect net neutrality have tens of thousands of supporters and have collected signatures and hosted rallies for years, organizations like Free Press, Electronic Frontier Foundation, and Fight for the Future, but nothing even remotely equivalent exists in support of dismantling net neutrality.

Faced with losing net neutrality, activists organized hundreds of protests in all 50 states, generated over 6 million tweets, and inundated Congress with phone calls, yet, with Trump’s blessing, Pai’s FCC acted unilaterally to dismantle net neutrality.

That millions of Americans continue to care about net neutrality, an issue seemingly so technical and impersonal, is testament to grassroots activism and democratic participation, much of it fostered by the free and open internet net neutrality is meant to protect. That the Trump administration and Ajit Pai’s FCC have decided to act without care or concern for the public will is a deeply troubling sign of how unresponsive the current administration is to the democratic process.