This article was first published by Liberal America on February 23.
When former Federal Communications Commission Chair Tom Wheeler resigned his post the day of Donald Trump’s inauguration, many advocates of net neutrality started writing epitaphs for the free and open internet. That’s because when Wheeler, a former telecommunications lobbyist, proposed during his tenure to loosen net neutrality rules so telecom giants could enjoy more profit shares, the outcry was enough–thanks in part to John Oliver–to force him to side with people who value the internet as a public utility.
But that was in 2015.
Now Wheeler is gone, Donald Trump is president, and a new FCC Chair is reconsidering the internet’s vital role in our common infrastructure.
Ajit Pai is Trump’s Federal Communications Chair. Like other cabinet appointees, he is a proponent of laissez-faire capitalism, is as pro-business as Scott Pruitt, Betsy DeVos, Steven Mnuchin, and Rex Tillerson. He has been named to his position to do one thing: privatize the internet.
In order to understand what Pai intends to do, let’s explain net neutrality.
You are able to read this because of an open internet. You turned on your computer or picked up your device, clicked a browser application, and now literally have all the information you need at your fingertips. Unless you are in a location where you do not have service, or your place of employment blocks certain sites, you probably don’t have to question whether or not you can access what you want.
Want CNN? Go for it. MSNBC? No problem. New York Times? Washington Post? Free Speech TV? Liberal America? They’re all yours. Your internet service provider (ISP), most likely your cable television company, allows you to access to any and all traffic for the same monthly fee.
But what if your ISP charged you different rates depending on the type of media you want, like cable companies already do with channel selections? Different pay packages afford us access to certain channels. We don’t all have HBO. We don’t all have Showtime. If you want a “premium” channel, you have pay. Fox News is available through most basic cable packages, but MSNBC is not.
If cable providers apply this same policy to the internet, the breadth and reliability of internet news would be significantly hamstrung. If you get your news from, say, Liberal America, but your cable company only allows access to it for an additional five dollars a month, are you still going to rely on it, or are you going to check out sites only available to you based on how much you are willing to pay? What if the basic package you pay for doesn’t offer the necessary broadband speed you need to access media such as video or live feeds?
This is precisely what transnational media conglomerates want because, under the guise of “fewer regulations,” they increase profits. Ajit Pai said:
“We need to fire up the weed whacker and remove those rules that are holding back investment, innovation and job creation,” Ajit Pai said.
Paramount among Pai’s targets will be the net neutrality online traffic rules the FCC adopted through 3-2 vote in 2015 designed to guarantee the free flow of online data by barring internet service providers from discriminating against legal content flowing through their networks. To do that, the FCC under Tom Wheeler and President Obama imposed utility-like oversight preventing broadband providers from giving preferential treatment to content from their affiliates or business partners.
Since only a few cable and phone companies provide high-speed internet access, there is the potential to exploit customers. Those companies have already tried to use their authority to demand streaming companies like Netflix to pay them to deliver content to customers already paying for broadband.
With Pai at the helm, the FCC has already blocked nine companies from providing affordable high-speed internet to low-income families. Pai also withdrew the FCC’s support to curtail the cost of phone calls from prison, and said he disagrees with the 2015 decision to regulate the internet like a public utility.
Now more than ever, people rely on the internet for their information, education, the ability to apply for jobs, and access to public services like boards of elections, health, and departments of motor vehicles. Millions of people use the internet to research and obtain public assistance, and even health insurance through states’ healthcare exchanges.
The future of journalism–like independent outlets such as Liberal America–lays in the balance. The press cannot presume to effectively remain the fourth estate guaranteed in the Constitution if government revokes the mechanism for its existence. It is imperative the internet continue to be safeguarded as a public utility.
Here is a petition from Open Media I urge you to sign. In addition, contact your members of Congress at 202-225-3121, and let them know we are entitled to a free and open internet, and favor net neutrality.
The louder the scream, the less we can be ignored.