By Baynard Woods
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted Thursday to overturn the so-called net neutrality rules that prevent internet service providers from favoring certain sites with higher speeds, while jamming up others.
Net neutrality was the result of activist campaigns in 2015. Craig Aaron, president of the advocacy group Free Press, calls net neutrality the “First Amendment of the internet,” which ensure that “when you go online, you can go wherever you want; do whatever you want; download whatever you want; and it’s not up to Comcast, Verizon or AT&T to decide which websites are going to work and which aren’t.”
Ajit Pai, an Obama appointee made chair by Trump, made a mission of undoing the 2015 rules.*
“This decision was a mistake. For one thing, there was no problem to solve,” he said before the decisive vote Thursday. “The Internet wasn’t broken in 2015. We weren’t living in a digital dystopia. To the contrary, the Internet is perhaps the one thing in American society we can all agree has been a stunning success.”
Pai went on to say that the net neutrality rules actually harmed consumers. “The main complaint consumers have about the Internet is not and has never been that their Internet service provider is blocking access to content. It’s that they don’t have access at all or enough competition,” he said.
“There’s a bit of trickery going on when the opponents of net neutrality say that this is going back to the way it was before,” Kit Walsh, staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told the Real News last month. “That’s just not true. In the very early days of the internet, when you got your internet access over phone lines, those phone lines were subject to non-discrimination rules under the same legal framework that is implicated in the 2015 Open Internet order. And so, that was why you were able to use your phone to call up a dial-up ISP.”
The fight for net neutrality began with broadband. “This is within the FCC’s discretion. They can say we’re going to treat broadband just like any other telecommunications service, but what they chose to do instead is to treat it like what’s called an information service, which it’s really not,” Walsh said.
The dangers, she says, could be immediate and wide-ranging. “So, for instance, Comcast owns a share in Universal Media Company. AT&T has its own streaming media platform. Verizon briefly had a news platform where they said that people were not to discuss net neutrality or mass surveillance, because that was contrary to their corporate interests,” she said. “So, what companies can do if this proposed order goes through is they’ll be able to threaten to block access to your website.”
Mignon Clyburn dissented in a scathing statement. “I dissent from this fiercely-spun, legally-lightweight, consumer-harming, corporate-enabling Destroying Internet Freedom Order,” she said. “I dissent, because I am among the millions who is outraged. Outraged, because the FCC pulls its own teeth, abdicating responsibility to protect the nation’s broadband consumers.”
Clyburn says that without the protections we will have a “Cheshire cat version of net neutrality” where “all that is left is a broadband provider’s toothy grin and those oh so comforting words: we have every incentive to do the right thing.”
Clyburn says marginalized communities will be harmed the most.
“Particularly damning is what today’s repeal will mean for marginalized groups, like communities of color, that rely on platforms like the internet to communicate, because traditional outlets do not consider their issues or concerns, worthy of any coverage,” she said. “It was through social media that the world first heard about Ferguson, Missouri, because legacy news outlets did not consider it important until the hashtag started trending. It has been through online video services, that targeted entertainment has thrived, where stories are finally being told because those same programming were repeatedly rejected by mainstream distribution and media outlets. And it has been through secure messaging platforms, where activists have communicated and organized for justice without gatekeepers with differing opinions blocking them.”
Clyburn promised to work with Twitter to host a town-hall meeting at 2:00 p.m. on Tuesday.
Pai has shown himself as a champion of corporate interests since taking office earlier this year. He recently rolled back regulations against monopolies and cleared the way for the right-wing media outlet Sinclair to purchase Tribune Media, a move that would place it in up to 70% of American homes.
*An earlier version of this story said that Pai was appointed by Trump, without making it clear that he was already serving on the FCC before the President made him chair. Real News regrets the error.