Presented in partnership with the Benton Foundation
All the fog-it and smog-it rhetoric of the big Internet Service Providers since last Thursday’s vote cannot cloud the core issue. The question at the heart of this vote was simply whether the public agency charged since the 1920s with protecting consumers, competition, and innovation in telecommunications still retains these vital responsibilities in the advanced telecommunications world of the twenty-first century. Will there be some place to turn when a few too-powerful Internet gatekeepers try to short-circuit the most dynamic communications tool in all of history? When they block, throttle, or degrade online sites they might not like? Or limit our ability to get the news and information we need in order to maintain our democracy? Are we to stand helplessly by as Verizon, Comcast, and AT&T favor their friends with express lanes on the Internet autobahn while consigning the rest of us to the bumpy dirt roads of yesterday’s technology?
I can imagine the country club retreats and steakhouse dinners that went on this past week-end as the Internet Service Providers (ISPs) try to figure out how it was that they lost the big vote. Losing isn’t something they’re used to. The questions they’re rehashing: “Why didn’t the Commission come around this time, as it has so many times before, to our carefully-crafted corporate-speak?” “Was our lobbying strategy wrong?” “Should we have spent even more millions lobbying and lawyering?” “And whatever happened with Chairman Wheeler—weren’t we counting on him?” “Oh, poor us. Another Grey Goose on the rocks, waiter.”
By the time the porterhouses and creamed spinach are served, however, the conversation will be looking ahead: to Capitol Hill strategy squarely aimed at undoing the FCC’s net neutrality decision; to litigation strategy for taking the Commission to court(s); to media strategy for belching forth even more smog and fog; and to more astroturf strategy so that organizations and community groups they have favored with corporate contributions over the years are “encouraged” to contact their representatives in Washington to spread the ISPs’ message.
I frankly doubt they will be able to come up with anything new. Every argument that could be made against an Open Internet has long-since been made. It took the two minority Commissioners almost an hour of speech-making last week to prove my point. This issue has a history and a record going back to 2002. I know because I was there, as a Commissioner, to dissent from the classification disaster created by the Powell Commission that year. The Open Internet has a 2005 record, a 2010 record, and now the comprehensive inquiry conducted by the Wheeler Commission over the past 14 months. So don’t expect a lot of new arguments. Look instead for old skeletons dressed in new clothes. But they will be expensive new clothes, the best that money can buy.
We rightly celebrate Thursday’s vote. It was the biggest and best decision by any FCC in years, perhaps ever. But now we must preserve, protect, and defend it. All of us who believe in an Open Internet need to stay informed and stay active. We need to keep telling our story in
Washington and helping citizens across the land get their messages to keep decision-makers about how important it is not to reverse what has just been achieved.
And now that the issue is tending more toward an up-or-down outcome in the courts and in Congress (which can try passing a neutered net neutrality bill, but I don’t see such legislation being signed by President Obama) and the courts, it is time to consider our own strategy, too. More of the same that brought us this far, of course. But I’d like to see us augment our side. We are down to basic principles now; we will or won’t have an Open Internet that protects rights and opportunities for every American.
Some of the major civil rights and labor organizations differed with the particulars of the Commission’s ultimate decision. And they had their chance to influence what was decided. But the issue was decided, and now is the time for them to rally ‘round the Open Internet flag and fight for what has been achieved, rather than become the unwitting tool of those who seek to close the doors of Internet opportunity.
Color of Change, the Center for Media Justice, the National Hispanic Media Coalition, and Dream Corps/Rebuild the Dream eloquently and effectively expressed what is at stake in this issue for minority citizens. “Our ability to be heard, counted, and visible in this democracy now depends on an open Internet, because it allows voices and ideas to be spread based on their quality—not the amount of money behind them,” wrote Rashad Robinson. And listen to Van Jones: “African Americans need Internet freedom to preserve our political voices and foster a generation of young, black entrepreneurs taking on entrenched businesses.”
This is a civil rights issue—perhaps the preeminent one of the twenty-first century. Will the opportunity-creating tools of broadband and the Internet be available to every American? Will every one of us be able to deploy these technologies and services to find a job, keep a job, do our job? To educate ourselves and our kids and grandkids? To better manage our health care? Or will yet another generation of minority citizens be denied the opportunities available to others?
It’s a civil right issue for all of us. Working men and women, labor unions, teachers, journalists, disability communities, every ethnic group, the list goes on. Because we’re at risk, too. Fast lanes for the few, if that’s allowed to happen in the absence of an Open Internet, mean just that—the few. Most of you reading this piece, and me, are in the many, not the few.
The FCC, again under Tom Wheeler’s leadership, took yet another historic step last week. It preempted two state statutes that seriously interfered with communities’ ability to encourage their own broadband networks when incumbent ISP services were either unavailable to them or made virtually impossible to build. Some 20 states have passed such laws, pushed by the major ISPs and the American Legislative Council (ALEC) to which they belong. It is long past time that these state legislative barriers, which contravene federal statute, be removed so that communities can build their own networks.
America’s broadband performance, as most of us understand all too well, leaves much to be desired. Many other nations surpass ours in getting high-speed, low-cost, opportunity-creating broadband out to all their citizens. Why should the United States, which developed the technology in the first place, end up far down the list of broadband also-rans? Wouldn’t it be better to let our villages help turn themselves into connected twenty-first century connected villages? It’s time for the big ISPs and their ideology-bound allies to get out of the way.
In sum: congratulations to Chairman Wheeler, Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, and Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel for your two huge and historic votes this past week and for your revalidation of your agency. Our shared win was a victory not just for Internet Freedom, but Freedom itself.