The FCC repeal of net neutrality is dangerous, but with court challenges and more grassroots activism on the way, it can still be stopped, says Craig Aaron of Free Press
AARON MATÉ: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Maté. Is the internet as we know it dead? That’s the question after a major decision by the Federal Communications Commission. By a margin of three to two, the FCC voted to appeal rules that guaranteed equal access to all web content. Under net neutrality, service providers on the internet were barred from favoring a certain content with higher speeds and more visible access. With net neutrality gone, that means that what you see and how you see it on the web could very much change. Don’t write off net neutrality just yet. Those who waged the grassroots campaign to win it in the first place, are now leading an effort to save it.
Craig Aaron is president of the group Free Press, one of those groups that fought for net neutrality, and is now within the charge to protect it. Craig, welcome. What is the significance of yesterday’s vote?
CRAIG AARON: Thanks for having me. Yesterday’s vote at the Federal Communication’s Commission is significant, because it represents the first time the FCC has completely abdicated any responsibility to serve the public. The rules the FCC passed yesterday tear down strong net neutrality rules, clear protections that were instituted in 2015 during the Obama administration, and they really defang the agency all together leaving them unable to step in if and when a powerful phone or cable company decides to start interfering with the internet. It opens the door to blocking, slowing down content, creating pay-to-play fast lanes that only the biggest media companies can afford. It’s a very dangerous decision, but I do not believe it will be the last word in this fight.
AARON MATÉ: Before we get to the fight, what do you see as the most immediate implications should the repeal of net neutrality go into effect, and what it could mean for average consumers who consume web content?
CRAIG AARON: I think one of the real dangers here is how hard it is going to be for the average consumer to know what’s going on. What getting rid of these rules does is it allows phone and cable companies to start manipulating your internet experience in all kinds of ways, some of which you won’t actually be able to see, or you won’t know is happening. Maybe you’re trying to watch this show and you’re getting the spinning wheel of death, and you can’t figure it out. Is it your internet connection? Do you need to pay for faster speeds? Is something else going on? You start to notice that, all of the sudden, Fox News is coming through just fine. These are the kinds of things that we’re concerned about, as well as a whole set of deals these companies want to strike, where they offer preferential treatment to their own content, and most of these are big, multifaceted media companies, as well as those who might pay.
Suddenly, we start to change the fundamental nature of the internet. It stops looking like that free and open space where you’re in control, and starts looking a lot more like cable television, where your company pick and choose the channels for you, starts pricing out different tiers, and makes it a lot harder for independent voices to be heard, and a lot harder for new and innovative companies to compete with the big guys.
AARON MATÉ: Do you believe the internet companies when they say … They’ve offered some assurances that they’re not going to be offering tiered packages, not going to be charging people more to access things like Google and YouTube. Do you trust their assurances?
CRAIG AARON: No. I don’t trust the cable companies. These are companies, these are the most hated companies in the country for a reason. You can’t trust them to show up at your house when they say they will at 10:00 a.m., and I don’t trust their assurances that they’re not going to mess with the internet. The reason why is because when they’re talking to their own investors, when they’re talking to each other at trade shows, when they’re under oath in court, they make very clear that they do intend to discriminate. We’re already seeing them starting to scrub their pledges and their terms of service to allow fast lanes and paid prioritization.
The other reason I don’t really believe them is, if they have no intention of violating the spirit of these rules, then why are they spending millions and millions of dollars to overturn them? It just doesn’t make any sense. Clearly there are things they want to do that the public is not going to like.
AARON MATÉ: Let me put to you the reason that I hear said most often, especially by the man responsible for all this, FCC chair Ajit Pai, a former lawyer for Verizon. He says that these regulations are making it hard to do business. They’re trampling the free market, and undoing them will free up much needed capital for these companies to invest in better broadband, in better infrastructure to provide services to their customers.
CRAIG AARON: Yeah. The evidence just doesn’t support any of those claims. Since these rules were put into place, investment is up overall among cable and telecom companies. It’s also up, in a big way, in the whole internet ecosystem. It’s clear that these, and these are multibillion dollar companies that make investment decisions for a lot of reasons, but there’s zero evidence that these rules and regulations have held them back in any way. Moreover, the problem is that the way they make money in a world without net neutrality is by profiting off of scarcity. If you’re going to see someone a ticket to the fast lane, then you have to have a slow lane they’re trying to avoid. All the incentives line up for these guys to start messing with content, offering special treatment for themselves, for select corporate partners, and slowing down everybody else. It really is a zero-sum game.
In a fair system, all these companies would be doing is just building big open pipes and all of us can go out and create whatever we want and compete with everybody else. That’s the internet we should have. That’s not the internet that Comcast, Verizon and AT&T are interested in building, and Ajit Pai, unfortunately, has shown no concern for any of the evidence in the record, and he seems to be motivated ideologically to just do away with any regulations, and do whatever he can to serve the biggest companies out there no matter the cost.
AARON MATÉ: Let’s go to Ajit Pai. He was speaking yesterday before the vote at the FCC, and part of his argument was that the net neutrality rules that were imposed fix a system that was not broken.
AJIT PAI: This decision was a mistake. For one thing, there was no problem to solve. The internet wasn’t broken in 2015. We were not living in some digital dystopia. To the contrary, the internet is one thing, perhaps the only thing, in American society that we can all agree has been a stunning success.
AARON MATÉ: That’s Ajit Pai, the FCC chair, and he was saying, Craig, that these regulations, these net neutrality regulations messed with something that already was a stunning success.
CRAIG AARON: Yeah. The evidence just doesn’t support any of those claims. Net neutrality has been a part of the internet since its inception, and didn’t become an issue until under the first Bush administration … Excuse me, the second Bush administration, George W. Bush’s administration, they began moving to undo and change the rules to benefit the cable industry. We’ve been having a big political fight since 2005 over what those rules should look like. The internet has been thriving in a world in which net neutrality has been largely protected, and where we had an FCC that was usually willing to step in when they saw a problem. They lost some of those efforts in court when they were challenged by the big companies, but net neutrality has been the rules of the road for the internet forever. This idea that the 2015 decision was some break from what came before is completely false.
What the Obama administration ended up doing, and let’s be clear, Obama and the FCC only did it after immense public pressure, was to just codify those rules and just build in all those expectations that people had, and make sure that the FCC actually had the authority to step in when there was a problem. That’s what was in dispute. Not whether we should have net neutrality, but whether the FCC could do anything about it when these companies started acting badly. What Ajit Pai is saying is, we’re not going to do anything about it anymore, and that’s the change here.
AARON MATÉ: Right. Interestingly, the open internet rules were inactive in 2015. Since then, they’ve been challenged in court. Several courts have upheld them.
CRAIG AARON: That’s right.
AARON MATÉ: I’m wondering if that sets a precedence now for the legal challenge that will follow that FCC repeal yesterday?
CRAIG AARON: Yeah. I think it does, and that’s important history. Ever since the net neutrality was thrown in jeopardy by a Supreme Court decision in 2005, there have been a series of court fights every time the FCC has tried to go forward with a half measure, or pretend its authority exists in some other part of the law, the courts have rejected the FCCs rules. When they finally passed strong and clear rules, resting on clear authority, something called Title 2 of the Communications Act, the courts upheld that decision. They’ve actually done it twice so far. That’s a case that could go to the Supreme Court still, but that’s the first time the rules were ever upheld.
Now you have Ajit Pai coming in, and the thing is, when it comes to administrative law, it’s not enough to say that Donald Trump is president and we want to trash everything. You actually have to build a legal case. You actually have to present evidence that there was a reason to change these rules. You actually have to show that the public interest is being served somehow by this decision. I don’t think Ajit Pai can do that. We’re certainly preparing our lawsuit right now. We’ll be filing it in the next couple of weeks, to challenge these rules in court. I’m sure we won’t be alone. I expect this will go to federal court sometime next year, a challenge, and I think it’s a challenge we can win.
AARON MATÉ: One more clip of Ajit Pai making that case for why it is in the public interest to change the rules.
AJIT PAI: What is responsible for the phenomenal development of the internet? It certainly wasn’t heavy-handed government regulation. Quite to the contrary. At the dawn of the commercial internet, president Clinton and a Republican Congress agreed that it would be the policy of the United States to, and I quote, “preserve the vibrant and competitive free market that presently exists for the internet unfettered by federal and state regulation.” This bipartisan policy worked.
AARON MATÉ: That’s Ajit Pai, the chair of the FCC, speaking for the vote to repeal net neutrality. Craig, what I found interesting here was he says that was has been responsible for the boom of the internet has not been government regulation, and he suggested that it was all about encouraging the free market. What he left out is that the internet was created with public funding, which to me, then, would lend credence to the view that the internet should be regulated and distributed in the service and the interest of the public.
CRAIG AARON: Yeah. And that’s just the start of the things he left out. He likes to talk about these Clinton era of bipartisanship, but what happened during that era was they passed a bill in 1996 that updated the Communications Act, and of course, that contains Title 2of the Communications Act, the thing he’s trying to strip. So that very legislation is what set out the legal structure that we’re trying to protect. It’s very clear if you look at that legislative history, if you look at how the internet actually developed, it was because we had a neutral network, that knew competitors could emerge.
Whether it’s Google in a garage, or Facebook in a dorm room, they could only succeed initially because they could get on that internet that was an even playing field. That’s why the companies that care most about something like net neutrality aren’t the big guys who can afford to buy themselves out now. It’s the upstarts, it’s the little guys, it’s the independent content producers, it’s the independent musicians, because they know that that’s their only chance. Otherwise, you have to go and beg AT&T, or Comcast or Verizon for permission for a spot on their network, for a spot in their fast lane, for their permission to innovate.
That’s not the internet we want. That’s not what created the internet we have, and Ajit Pai can pretend otherwise, but it simply flies in the face of all available evidence, and anything the public wants. There has never been an issue gotten more attention or more public opposition than what Ajit Pai is trying to do right now at the FCC. He is choosing to ignore it, but there are a lot of other politicians out there, politicians who need to run for office, who may take a different view.
AARON MATÉ: Speaking of public opposition, Craig, as we wrap, talk about the protest that we’ve seen around this FCC repeal vote and what you expect to see going forward.
CRAIG AARON: It’s been absolutely incredible. The last three weeks has been nothing like we’ve seen before. We have seen a huge groundswell of opposition. There were 22 million comments filed at the FCC. That’s more than any other issue, ever. There have been a million calls to congress, just in the last few weeks. Some offices are telling us that’s more calls than they’re getting on taxes. They’re running 6,000 to 1 against Ajit Pai. We saw protests erupting everywhere. There were 700 protests in all 50 states last week. There were hundreds of people outside of the FCC on multiple days, this week, including yesterday, a huge protest of racial justice activists around the issue of net neutrality.
So the public is speaking out. Politicians are starting to get that message and see that this is becoming a truly potent issue. That’s why I’m actually so confident that Ajit Pai isn’t going to prevail here. There’s going to be a fight in court. There’s going to be a fight in Congress too. We’re pushing congress right now to throw out these rules. They have the power to do so, and we’ll be going in 2018 to get them to just toss out what this FCC has done. There are already, I think, 20 senators now who’ve agreed to support that legislation. And I expect to see a lot more in the days ahead.
AARON MATÉ: I think 2018 is the key date because right now, with the Republicans controlling Congress, that’s unlikely, but that could change in 2018.
CRAIG AARON: I think that’s right, we’re seeing Republicans move. So there’s a reason for optimism.
AARON MATÉ: Craig Aaron, president of Free Press. Thank you.
CRAIG AARON: Thanks a lot.