Under Siege: Revisiting Digital Rights in the Trump Era

In late 2017, the Federal Communications Commission officially repealed net neutrality, which protected equal access to information online. Recent court cases and state laws, however, have returned the issue to the public sphere, and it appears that there is still potential for a future in which our internet is freely available and its information is accessible to all. I will first overview the concept of net neutrality, and then examine a recent net neutrality court case, as well as new state-level laws. An open and accessible internet is key to a free society, and we must do everything in our power to make it a reality.

Net neutrality is the principle that prevents Internet Service Providers from discriminating against different websites, content, and information, especially on the basis of how much money a company or customer is willing to pay.” Basically, net neutrality states that all traffic is equal online. That means that Internet Service Providers (i.e. Comcast and Verizon) cannot charge a “speed” fee to businesses as a form of selective speed throttling, which would result in the slowdown of websites that don’t pay the fee. Without net neutrality, giant corporations like Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon could pay to have their websites load faster for consumers, leaving their small competitors in the dust. If you can’t pay the ransom, you can’t compete with those who can. This would stifle competition and allow monopolies to more easily take hold. In other words, ISPs like Comcast, Verizon, and the like can force websites to pay for play. If smaller businesses or tech start-ups can’t pay the same fee, as they lack the capital to do so, their websites can be legally slowed down for customers. This setup could result in the shutdown of small businesses before they even get off the ground. The unfair and inequitable advantage that ISPs can give to the wealthier customers should not and cannot be allowed to remain unchecked and unregulated. We must ensure that the internet remains open, especially considering its role in today’s civil society. Removing access based on one’s ability to pay is wrong and detrimental to any attempt at a democratic society.

Let’s recap some of the major events that took place over the last two years in the fight for net neutrality. Multiple “Days of Action” saw millions of people submit new pro-net neutrality comments to the FCC. In addition, many of the tech giants themselves came together to voice support for net neutrality, including Google, Amazon, Facebook, Twitter, and Netflix. These companies support net neutrality not out of the goodness of their hearts, but because their users demand it.

Despite the groundswell of activism, net neutrality was repealed in Dec. 2017, shortly after Ajit Pai became the head of the FCC. Basically, the old rules of ensuring equitable treatment for all were overturned.  Because most Americans have not noticed a major change in the way they access the internet, it may seem that net neutrality is not an incredibly important issue. It may even seem that net neutrality really isn’t worth fighting for. Yet, in its simplest terms, the unregulated internet allows internet service providers to have unmitigated control over all of our connections to the internet. This means that the ISPs can even go so far as to change how much access an individual person has to the internet.

So, what has happened recently? Mozilla v. FCC was filed by Mozilla Corporation. Mozilla is a small internet services provider and it sued the FCC before the U.S. Court of Appeals in D.C.  Mozilla argued that the FCC’s 2017 decision to reclassify ISPs as information service providers, instead of utility providers, was in error. The reclassification makes the internet dangerously similar to how the government regulates television providers, which could conceivably result in a system where you have to pay for a “streaming package” to access non-Netflix video sites at normal speeds, or a “news package” which forces the customer to pay extra to gain access to publications like “The Guardian.” In addition, Mozilla was joined by 22 states who filed their own briefs requesting that the court overturn the FCC repeal. Mozilla was just one of many organizations that was in opposition to FCC decision of 2017. In October 2019, the U.S. Court of Appeals in D.C. made a ruling that the FCC did not overstep its authority in 2017 when it allowed the deregulation of ISPs. Now, this sounds like bad news, but this D.C. Court of Appeals decision had a silver lining. The court found that the FCC was in error when it barred states from legislating their own state-defined net neutrality laws. This is a good sign, as it gives local action, especially at the state legislative level, a chance at maintaining and instituting an open and accessible internet. It also means that activism efforts are more likely to succeed. It is much easier to change state-level law than federal law.

This recent D.C. Court of Appeals ruling doesn’t come close to ending the argument over net neutrality, however. It has just moved the debate from the federal level to the state level. Although it may appear that the FCC and large companies have won since we still do not have net neutrality rules at the federal level, there is a groundswell of support to bring back those pre-2017 protections. In fact, at least 29 states are in the process of introducing bills that would protect net neutrality.

It seems clear that net neutrality should be one of the platform issues in the upcoming 2020 presidential election.  Although the Democrats have introduced ‘Save the Internet’ legislation, no new laws are necessary. The easiest solution would be to just repeal the FCC’s prior ruling.    Bring back the pre-2017 regulations that gave each person, regardless of money or influence, the same rights to access the same internet services as the big corporations. You can contact your congressperson at: (202) 224-3121

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