The Federal Communications Commission has finally taken the necessary steps to preserve a free and open Internet by guaranteeing net neutrality.
With the commission’s 3-2 vote on Thursday, the issue is settled.
Then it will rise again. No, there will not be a mass outcry against net neutrality, the premise that all Internet communications should be treated equally. There will be no popular demand for ending net neutrality protections against the development of a two-tier Internet, where “paying” content (from multinational corporations and powerful special interests) moves on an information superhighway, while “non-paying” content (from grassroots groups and dissenting citizens) is diverted onto a digital dirt road.
But there will be campaign donations, lobbying and spin from telephone and cable companies that have too much at stake to give up on the fight for an end to rules that prevent them from subdividing the Internet for profit. Telecommunications conglomerates stand to make a lot more money if they can charge extra to move some communications more quickly—creating a circumstance where corporations and politicians with the right connections can pay for commercial and political advantages in the digital age.
The telecom giants cannot establish a pay-to-play Internet if the FCC enforces strict net neutrality protections. That’s why it was so vital that media reform, civil-rights and community groups first made net neutrality an issue and then succeeded in building a mass movement on behalf of basing new net-neutrality rules on Title II of the Communications Act—a step that would allow regulation in the public interest rather. That’s why it mattered so much that President Obama embraced net neutrality and urged his appointees to the FCC to do the same. And that’s why the FCC’s embrace of net neutrality is such a big deal for communications and democracy.
There is much to celebrate. In an era when corporations so frequently get so very much of what they ask for, it is both good and hopeful that a federal agency is acting on behalf of the public interest. “Today’s vote is the biggest win for the public interest in the FCC’s history,” says Free Press president Craig Aaron. “It’s the culmination of a decade of dedicated grassroots organizing and advocacy. Millions of people came to the defense of the open Internet to tell Washington, in no uncertain terms, that the Internet belongs to all of us and not just a few greedy phone and cable companies.”
This is, in particular, a win for social and economic justice advocates, who rely on a free and open Internet to communicate and to organize. “The open Internet is the platform that allows ordinary people to speak with an unfiltered voice, and net neutrality is what protects that,” explains Rashad Robinson, executive director of ColorOfChange.org. “A new civil rights movement is now flourishing in this country in response to tragic and unjust police violence in Ferguson, Staten Island, and many other communities. But without net neutrality, the voices of everyday people wouldn’t have a chance. Today the FCC has taken crucial steps toward protecting a vital tool in the fight for equality and justice. This victory shows that people power can sometimes triumph over corporate dollars.”
Robinson is right. A remarkable coalition of media reform, civil-rights and community activists made the win possible, with crucial roles played by Common Cause, the Future of Music Coalition, the Center for Media Justice, Presente.org, the National Hispanic Media Coalition, Consumers Union and dozens of other groups. But when today’s celebrations are done, it will be important to recognize that this is not, necessarily, the end of the story.
Even as the FCC was preparing to act—with three Democratic appointees voting for net neutrality and two Republican appointees voting against—Republicans on Capitol Hill were busy setting up a new front in the long battle. Key House committees were scrambling this week to hold “hearings” that were designed to amplify the anti–net neutrality talking points of the telecom industry and its lobbyists.
Dismissed as “political theater” by supporters of the FCC move, a House Communications and Technology Subcommittee hearing featured “phone and cable industry-funded spokespeople and pundits enlisted by their congressional allies to spread fear about net neutrality.”
This was “political theater,” designed to provide a platform for the telecommunications companies and their allies. But it was also a reminder that the telephone and cable companies will keep looking for ways to chip away at net neutrality.
There will be legal challenges, as there have been before.
Republicans in the House and Senate could enact anti–net neutrality legislation. But it would, in all certainty, be blocked by President Obama, who has been ardent in his support of net neutrality and who says, “For almost a century, our law has recognized that companies who connect you to the world have special obligations not to exploit the monopoly they enjoy over access into and out of your home or business. It is common sense that the same philosophy should guide any service that is based on the transmission of information—whether a phone call or a packet of data.”
So net neutrality is real for now. But what happens when Obama is gone? What happens with the next president and the next Congress?
The presumed front-runner for the 2016 presidential nomination, former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, appears to be reasonably supportive of net neutrality. She says that if she were on the FCC she would back the move to reclassify broadband as a utility—identifying Internet service providers as common carriers under Title II of the Telecommunications Act. But she also says, “It’s not just net neutrality standing alone, end of debate. And that should be part of a really smart legislative endeavor, but I don’t think people believe that could happen in the short term.”
The “short term” finishes in 2016. Then a new president will appoint new members of the FCC and will work with a new Congress—in which Democrats might control the Senate, or might not. Clinton says that what’s happened now is “not the end of the discussion.”
She’s right. And that’s why net neutrality will be an issue in the 2016 presidential election.
Clinton needs to be pressed on what she means when she talks about “a really smart legislative endeavor” and “a modern twenty-first-century telecom act.” This should be an issue in Democratic debates. That would be likely if Senator Elizabeth Warren is drafted into the race. And it would certainly happen if Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders mounts a primary challenge to Clinton. Sanders has championed media reform and media justice issues since coming to Congress in 1991. Few on Capitol Hill understand media issues so well as Sanders. And he is a stalwart for net neutrality, speaking frequently on the why it is necessary to “ensure that the Internet remains a space for the open exchange of ideas and information, free of discrimination and corporate control.”
If a Republican is elected president, however, all net neutrality bets could be off. The GOP, which once was more supportive of competition and at least somewhat more interested in the public interest, has become reliably pro-corporate in its approach to the regulation of the telecommunications industry. The party’s platform explicitly rejects net neutrality, complaining that regulation in the public interest is an attempt “to micromanage telecom.” Despite the fact that many of the most innovative Internet firms were ardent backers of net neutrality, congressional Republicans specifically urged the FCC not to act as it has because doing so “would threaten the jobs and investments made possible by the broadband industry.”
Republican presidential prospects who have spoken on the issue are even more ardent than the platform of their party’s congressional leadership. Texas Senator Ted Cruz says net neutrality is “Obamacare for the Internet” and claims that “the Internet should not operate at the speed of government.” Former Florida governor Jeb Bush’s father and brother appointed industry allies to the FCC, and no one expects Jeb to reject the family tradition. And it would be a bad bet, indeed, to imagine that candidates who have slathered themselves in special-interest money such as Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker would look to the public-interest community for advice and counsel.
In 2016, candidates of both parties will be questioned, challenged and asked to get specific about net neutrality. The issue will arise in 2016, at the cocktail parties and closed-door dinners where candidates collect campaign contributions. The question is whether activists will provoke an open and honest debate that will let every American know where the candidates stand—and what is at stake.
“There’s no doubt that the cable and telecom monopolies and their hired guns will ramp up their lies and lobbying in an attempt to take this victory away from Internet users,” warns Aaron, who says activists who have won net neutrality must be ready to “defend this historic win.”
That defense will need to be mounted in 2016. Activists must be prepared to prod and pressure candidates of both parties to reject corporate spin and corporate cash in favor of the public interest and net neutrality.
John Nichols is (with Robert W. McChesney) a co-founder of Free Press, and a co-author of several books that consider the net neutrality issue, including The Death and Life of American Journalism (Nation Books) and Dollarocracy (Nation Books).