On the Net Neutrality front, History Repeats Itself

Posted by Mitchell - July 12, 2017 (entry 727)

On the day of this post, July 12, 2017, more than 70,000 websites from across the internet join a day of action to preserve the principle of a neutral internet (a necessity given the oligopoly that American telecom has become). This day of action echoes another coordinated day of action — the National Day of Outrage on May 26, 2004 — that Chicago Media Action started (it was our idea). We are glad that the fight for a neutral internet has continued and grown and had a resounding impact.

And wow, has it. In the 13 years since that National Day of Outrage, the fight has grown to become the most popular docket in the eighty-plus-year history of the FCC. What's more, the policy of Net Neutrality has been placed back on a strong Title II footing (the legal framework ensuring that ISPs can't overturn the policy in court), which has won in the courts (twice). In the court of public opinion, it's no contest: Even the companies that have led the charge against net neutrality for the past decade and change are now espousing rhetorical support for net neutrality (despite fighting for policies that do the opposite).

The fight and these wins were a long time coming, slogging for more than a decade to build awareness and an inside/outside game that ultimately succeeded in changing policy. But can we keep it? Sad to say, maybe not. With Donald Trump's election in 2017, the majority of FCC commissioners switches to Republicans, as does the FCC chair — a former Verizon attorney who got his law degree from the University of Chicago (my alma mater as well, by the way).

They are hell-bent to remove the internet from Title II protection, just two years after the reclassification was passed. Applying such anti-popular policies despite public outcry is nothing new for the FCC. The courts blocked them before in such cases, citing the public outcry as a key reason why. It's quite possible that an attempt to remove net neutrality from Title II protection is going the same path in the short term: the FCC will open a docket, see it flooded with comments asking/demanding/pleading not to remove net neutrality from Title II protection, and proceed to ignore them all and vote to do it anyway. We can then expect a filing to block, that they're applying a rule that's "arbitrary and capricious".

While all of that is happening, the ISP market is, as mentioned above, increasingly concentrated. Likewise, the internet itself is increasingly marketized and increasingly concentrated. Net neutrality doesn't address any of that; in fact, there's barely a whisper of commentary to that end. Not to say that net neutrality isn't important; it certainly is and I myself devoted more than a decade of work to help in that fight. It's just that the fix is just a bandage to some deeper issues that we'll need to address, and quickly.

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