Broadband Fuels Our Democracy. Title II Protects Our Digital Rights.
Broadband is as necessary as water, gas, and electricity – a sentiment shared by over half of all Americans who say that the internet has been essential during the COVID-19 pandemic. As an organization dedicated to upholding the core values of American democracy, Common Cause understands the importance of a free, open and accessible internet for everyone. Broadband contributes to an informed and engaged public, and without it we have no functioning democracy.
Broadband has fundamentally changed what participation in our democracy looks like. Today, people use the internet to register to vote, learn about political candidates, find their polling places, access government services, organize rallies, communicate with their friends and family, and much more. But broadband can only fuel civic engagement to the extent our digital rights are protected online.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has the authority to regulate and oversee broadband under Title II of the Communications Act. Title II is often synonymous with net neutrality, the principle that the internet should be open and ISPs shouldn’t be allowed to block, throttle, or create fast lanes for prioritized internet access. But Title II means much more than that. It protects the digital rights everyone expects when going online.
The largest ISPs in this country hold tremendous control over who can access the internet and what that access looks like. This unfettered control gives ISPs the ability and incentive to engage in discriminatory practices that undermine our digital rights. For example, ISPs have engaged in price gouging, sold the real-time location data of their customers, and conducted fraudulent billing practices. Title II gives the FCC the authority to ensure broadband prices are just and reasonable and allows the agency to investigate unjust and discriminatory conduct. As broadband has become essential now more than ever, the FCC should have every tool available at its disposal to hold these companies accountable and protect the public interest.
Recognizing the critical nature of connectivity, the FCC under the Obama administration reclassified broadband as a Title II service under the 2015 Open Internet Order, creating a framework that advanced universal and affordable connectivity and safeguarded critical consumer protections when online. However, the FCC during the Trump administration repealed the 2015 Order, and consequently abdicated its authority over broadband.
Since the FCC relinquished its broadband authority, we’ve seen a wild west where ISPs are free to do what they want at the expense of consumers. In one particularly egregious example, Verizon throttled the Santa Clara Fire Department during its response to the California Wildfires, and the Fire Department was left without legal recourse because the FCC had no oversight over Verizon’s actions. Without Title II authority, the FCC was also forced to resort to asking ISPs to make voluntary commitments not to terminate customer service during the pandemic. When customers filed hundreds of complaints noting ISPs failure to uphold the pledge, the FCC had no way to hold these providers accountable for disconnecting households during the pandemic. Without Title II, the FCC will continue to be stuck trying to protect consumers with one hand tied behind its back.
Title II also plays a vital role in safeguarding the rights of marginalized people. Black, Latinx, and Indigenous communities are less likely than white counterparts to have a broadband connection at home, meaning they are unable to fully participate in our democracy. These communities were also more likely to be impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, placing an increased importance on the availability of internet access for teleworking, telemedicine, and virtual education. They live in neighborhoods subject to digital redlining, leaving them with outdated infrastructure and without access to true high-speed internet. These same communities are even more likely to be disproportionately impacted by discriminatory data practices. With Title II authority, the FCC can correct the market failure that has led to these disparities, promulgate regulations that ban digital redlining, and adopt privacy protections safeguarding the personal data of members of marginalized communities with respect to how this data is handled by broadband providers.
This is a pivotal moment for consumers everywhere. We need a fully functional FCC to address our communications needs and protect our digital rights under Title II. These rights go way beyond the basic principle of net neutrality. Title II represents the ability of the Federal Communications Commission to ensure equal access to broadband, act in the event of an emergency, and safeguard the activities that are essential to our democracy. We need robust and affordable broadband now more than ever for a functioning democracy, and that can only be achieved through Title II.