America was always going to have a great debate about net neutrality.
Cable and telecommunications companies stand to reap billions if the Internet’s guarantee of equal protection for all communications is scrapped. Without net neutrality protections, they would be freed to create a pay-to-play Internet where they could charge corporations and special-interest groups to provide high-speed service, while consigning websites without benefactors to a digital dirt road.
That’s too lucrative a prospect for the profiteers to give up on.
By the same token, millions of Americans recognize that, if net neutrality is compromised, they will lose what is best about the Internet—its infinite variety, its affordability, its openness and freedom. And democracy activists know, as well, that without net neutrality another media platform will be colonized by the economic and political elites that have already narrowed and warped the national discourse.
So the battle lines have been drawn for a long time.
Now, the battle begins.
On Thursday, the Federal Communications Commission voted 3-2 to formally open the latest stage of that debate. That is all that has happened. But, for defenders of net neutrality, the significance cannot be underestimated. This really is the period in which the future of the Internet will be decided.
Commissioner Mignon Clyburn made that point when she told the crowd of net neutrality supporters who gathered for the vote that, “The real call to action begins after the vote today. This is your opportunity to formally make your points on the record. You have the ear of the entire FCC. The eyes of the world are on all of us.”
Clyburn was emphasizing the vital importance of public input to support maintaining a free and open Internet.
That input must be directed, in particular, toward the Democratic majority on the commission. And it must argue for a specific strategy: reclassification of Internet providers as “telecommunications services” that can be regulated in the public interest.
It is a mistake to think that the Democrats are on the same page. While they share some basic premises, they have important differences with regard to the approach the commission should take.
What the three Democrats agree on is this: the FCC has a role to play in defining net neutrality. That distinguishes them from the two Republican appointees, whose “no” votes were intended to say that this issue should be resolved by the US House and the US Senate—where the influence of the telecommunications conglomerates is great.