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  January 12, 2018

Senate Bill to Reverse FCC's Net Neutrality Repeal Gains Traction

As awareness of net neutrality gets more public attention, a Senate resolution that reverses the FCC's net neutrality repeal has 45 supporters, but major obstacles remain. The fight to reinstate net neutrality is also taking place in states and courthouses. Craig Aaron of Free Press has more
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Craig Aaron is the president and CEO of Free Press and the Free Press Action Fund in April 2011. He joined Free Press in 2004 and speaks across the country on media, Internet and journalism issues. Craig is a frequent guest on talk radio and is quoted often in the national press. His commentaries also appear regularly in the Guardian and the Huffington Post. Before joining Free Press, he was an investigative reporter for Public Citizen's Congress Watch and the managing editor of In These Times magazine. He is the editor of two books, Appeal to Reason: 25 Years of In These Times and Changing Media: Public Interest Policies for the Digital Age. He is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.


GREGORY WILPERT: Welcome to The Real News Network. I'm Greg Wilpert. Over 40 US senators are now backing a Senate resolution that could overturn last December's Federal Communications Commission's decision to rescind net neutrality. This means that senators have enough votes to force a floor vote on the issue. With the declared support of one Republican, Senator Susan Collins of Maine, there's a real possibility that the resolution could pass.

For many, net neutrality's a key free speech issue because the rule prohibits internet service providers from slowing down or even censoring internet traffic based on payments they receive from websites. Efforts to reverse the FCC's decision against net neutrality are also being pursued on several other fronts. States, for example, are considering a legislation to guarantee it, and lawsuits will probably be filed against the FCC once the new rules are official.

Joining me to analyze these developments is Craig Aaron. Craig is president of the organization Free Press, one of the groups that fights for net neutrality. Thanks for joining us again, Craig.

CRAIG AARON: Thanks for having me back.

GREGORY WILPERT: So, last time we had you on, you stated that even though the FCC voted to rescind net neutrality, the fight isn't over. Now it seems that the Senate is waking up to the issue and the resolution to reverse the FCC's decision could pass. How did this happen, especially considering that for many, net neutrality seems like an obscure issue and that Republicans control congress?

CRAIG AARON: Yeah, I think the story is that net neutrality has gone from one of those obscure technical issues to one that is ranking much closer to the top for a lot of people. And we've seen an amazing shift just over the last two months where what Donald Trump's FCC and the FCC chairman, Ajit Pai, did is they really awakened the public to this threat. Millions and millions of people have been activated on this issue going back a decade, but there's something new and different that happened here this fall when the Trump FCC moved to take away these rules that really set fire to an unprecedented public outcry.

A couple weeks ago, we were talking about trying to recognize 15 protests across the country on December 7th. There ended up being 700. A million, more than a million now, phone calls went into Capitol Hill, and offices were reporting 4,000, 5,000, 6,000 calls supporting net neutrality, zero supporting the Trump FCC. So, this is really gotten the attention of politicians. They're hearing a lot, especially from young people about this issue. It's showing up in the polling that the Democratic party is doing, and so there's been a remarkable shift in attention and awareness of this issue just in the past couple of weeks. And I think that energy is absolutely carrying over into 2018 and now you're seeing a lot of senators getting on board. There's already 45 senators committing to supporting a resolution that would throw out these rules, so that just leaves, it takes a simple majority. So, that leaves them just six votes shy in the Senate of the votes necessary to overturn this measure, and that's happened before the measure could even be introduced because the rules still haven't been published in the federal register.

So, we're seeing just this truly unprecedented groundswell of popular opposition from all across the political spectrum and all across the internet. Places like Reddit have been absolutely filled with talk about net neutrality on the front page now for weeks. People are organizing their own protests. The groups that have been organizing for years have ramped up our efforts, and you're seeing just a whole lot of attention and pressure put on decision makers. When you have that much, that intensely, in that short a time, even this congress pays attention.

GREGORY WILPERT: So, no doubt despite this wave of support from senators in the past several weeks, the fight ahead will be tough. What challenges would you say lie ahead to get net neutrality passed through congress and what are the chances of its actually passing?

CRAIG AARON: I think the chances are improving every day, but the challenges are real. The Republican party controls all the branches right now. Donald Trump is still president. The Republicans are in control in the House and the Senate, but in the Senate, we're seeing a lot of progress and the way this law is constructed, a law that's usually used to tear down good regulations, is that with just 30 Senators, you can force a vote. So, they've already got 45 senators committed, so there will be a vote on this on the floor. So, this will move. I think there's a good chance of it to pass.

That's gonna create its own political momentum in the House, where the discussion is just getting underway, but there's a companion version introduced by Rep. Mike Doyle from Pittsburgh that would similarly throw out these rules. So, there'll be a whole fight in the House about this. And then who knows what happens? I think the political ground is shifting so quickly that what we thought were sort of impossible things to get past, like Republican control of Congress, suddenly suggest that with some small shifts and with the amount of public input these offices are getting, that we actually do have a real chance to overturn these rules.

Now, that's no guarantee, and it is going to be a very tough political fight. It's going to take vigilance, it's gonna take more organizing, but it does show net neutrality again moving from an issue that was hotly debated at the FCC, and in certain online pockets, to one that is really getting national popular attention showing up on the front pages. People are talking about it across the kitchen table. We can thank Ajit Pai for that, and it suggests that the politics are continuing to move, especially in an election year, when there's a lot of big questions about what could happen in this election year. Are young people gonna turn out? Certainly one party, the Democratic party right now, is recognizing that young voters care about this, and that they probably should as well. We'll see if the Republicans catch onto that, but if they're going online, there's a lot of reasons they should feel that way.

You go across Reddit, you look at the NASCAR discussion group on Reddit, and net neutrality was the top most discussed item. That's a big shift. You go even on the comment threads of some of these right wing news sites. The coverage might be against net neutrality, but the commenters are completely for net neutrality. So, the politics are changing a lot, and it's a hard fight, but one that I'm increasingly optimistic about because we've never seen this kind of public engagement before.

GREGORY WILPERT: Let's turn to some of the other fronts in this battle. As I mentioned in the introduction, several state legislatures, such as California and New York, are considering net neutrality legislation for their states. Is this a solution to the problem also, on a state-by-state level, and would these efforts contribute to addressing the issue on a national level?

CRAIG AARON: I think the latter is definitely true, that states taking action here does matter. It very much matters politically. If you have some of the biggest states in the country demonstrating just how important this is, that that makes a big difference. Ultimately, this is all part of a larger political fight. It's hard to imagine an internet that operates differently in one state than another, and that will ultimately point to towards federal solutions, but I think it's incredibly important for the states to be weighing in here and showing just out of touch Washington DC is when it comes to net neutrality, and also it's important because one of the things the states are doing is presenting a direct challenge to the FCC's order, which claimed the right to preempt what states do on this. So, that is something worthy of legal challenge.

So, I think that's all gonna play out in the weeks ahead. What we're seeing is really politicians at every level recognizing just how important a free and open internet is to their constituents, and they're responding with legislation. So, I think it's something we want to definitely see encourage, and welcome that debate at the state level, at the local level, in really changing the national conversation over this issue of net neutrality. Importantly, pushing back on the one obstacle I didn't mention at the federal level, which is present at the state level, too.

And that's the incredible lobbying power of the phone and cable industry. They're panicking right now, and they're about to spend a lot of money to put a lot of pressure on legislators. Republicans, Democrats, federal, state, they're gonna try to really push back on this wave of support for net neutrality, but as that grows, there's a great opportunity to really put a lot of pressure on those companies to change their ways on this issue.

So, I see it as all part of the same large fight, but it is certainly part of the answer, if not the whole answer, which would be restoring what we had and making sure that the free and open internet works for everybody no matter where they live, no matter what device they're using, that their phone and cable company can't pick and choose for them what sites and services work, what news and information they can get, and what they can't.

GREGORY WILPERT: So, another front are there losses that are expected to be filed against the FCC once the new policy becomes official. First, when will that be and secondly, what types of losses can be expect and on what types of grounds?

CRAIG AARON: So, we don't know exactly when the court case is gonna be filed, but it should be in the next few weeks. We're simply waiting for these rules to be published in the federal register, which will set in motion a bunch of the procedures and process around this court case. But we can expect this to go to the federal appeals court this year, likely, sometime this year, later this year, and maybe be settled within a year. I know my group, Free Press, is gonna be among the groups challenging these rules. We'll be filing a lawsuit. We won't be alone. I think you might see a dozen different organizations, companies, groups, ultimately, local governments, state attorneys general, all come in to sue against what the FCC has done. And generally what we'll be arguing is that they failed in the process and they failed to provide evidence that this change was actually necessary.

When it comes to administrative law, it is not enough for the FCC to say, "Donald Trump is the president now and we want to change the rules." They actually have to make legal arguments, they actually have to provide evidence. We believe they've absolutely failed to do that, that the order they put out in December is very sloppy, ignores all of the contradictory evidence, ignores the public and what they weighed in and told the FCC to do in the public interest. And we actually think we have a strong case. There's no guarantees when you go to federal court, but we believe we have a strong case to see these rules thrown out and sent back to the FCC. We're optimistic when it comes to the outcome of this case, and we look forward actually to getting out day in court and being able to go after what the FCC's trying to do.

GREGORY WILPERT: Okay. Well, we're definitely gonna continue to follow this situation, and would love to have you back then. I was speaking to Craig Aaron, president and COO of the group Free Press. Thanks again, Craig, for having joined us.

CRAIG AARON: Thanks for having me.

GREGORY WILPERT: And thank you for joining The Real News Network.


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