The Federal Communications Commission voted Thursday to eliminate “the First Amendment of the Internet,” and in so doing it delivered the Trump administration’s most brutal blow yet to democracy in America.
Despite overwhelming public support for a free and open Internet, the CFC’s Trump-aligned majority engineered a 3-2 vote to overturn net-neutrality rules that have required Internet service providers to treat all online communications equally—and, in a related move, the commission majority rejected the authority of the FCC to protect a free and open Internet. Commission chair Ajit Pai, the telecommunications-industry lawyer who has done Donald Trump’s bidding in debates on a host of media and democracy issues, has cleared the way for service providers to establish information superhighways for political and corporate elites, while consigning communications from grassroots activists to digital dirt roads.
Addressing the American people on the day when the FCC dismissed millions of appeals on behalf of net neutrality, dissenting Commissioner Mignon Clyburn said Thursday: “What saddens me is that the agency that is supposed to protect you is abandoning you.”
Pai and his associates have moved to create what former FCC commissioner Michael Copps refers to as “a gatekeeper’s paradise,” where “our civic dialogue—the news and information upon which a successful self-governing society depends upon—would be further eroded.”
“Telecom and media consolidation have wreaked havoc with investigative journalism and turned political campaigns into a crass reality show and our ‘news’ into bottom-feeding infotainment,” warns Copps, who now works with Common Cause on media and democracy issues.
I don’t believe democracy can survive on such thin gruel. Throw in [the fact] that we, the people, will be paying ever-more exorbitant prices for this constricted future and you will understand why so many millions of people all across the land have contacted the FCC and Congress telling them to preserve our current net-neutrality rules.
Much of the debate about overturning net neutrality has been focused on the damage the move will do to consumers, and there can be no question that clearing the way for unprecedented profiteering by telecommunications corporations barters off our digital future to the same grifters who have turned broadcast- and cable-media platforms into vast wastelands of commercial excess. “ISPs want to turn the internet into cable,” says Congressman Ro Khanna (D-CA). “[They] want people to pay for every application.”
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But the biggest cost of eliminating net neutrality will be to the American experiment in citizen-driven dialogue, discourse, and decision making. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio says:
The internet makes it easier for people to get organized and amplify their voices. Ending Net Neutrality will make it harder for the people to fight powerful interests.
That assessment was confirmed by activists who rallied outside the FCC headquarters Thursday. “You don’t have the modern day anti-police violence movement without the open Internet,” said editor and cultural critic Jamilah Lemieux. “Saving the Net is a civil rights issue that effects Asian Americans across the US,” said Deepa Iyer, a senior fellow with the Center for Social Inclusion. Symone Sanders, who served as press secretary for the 2016 Bernie Sanders presidential campaign and is now a CNN commentator, said: “There is no resistance without a free and open Internet.”
Describing net neutrality as a racial-justice, social-justice, and economic-justice issue, Congressman Keith Ellison, D-Minnesota, explained that “A free and open Internet allows us to organize and resist. We need that now more than ever.”
Ellison is right. Those who would resist the Trump administration’s most authoritarian and anti-democratic instincts—on issues ranging from voter suppression to freedom of the press to civil rights and civil liberties—have used a free and open Internet to organize throughout 2017. They will need to continue to do so in 2018 and beyond.
This is why the elimination of net neutrality raises so much concern among democracy activists. If the agendas of the elites move at warp speed while the the ideas, the policy proposals, the protests, and the candidacies of dissenters move at a snail’s pace, existing inequalities in our political and governing processes will be amplified and extended. “Make no mistake,” says Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley, “The FCC’s plan to repeal Net Neutrality [allows] massive corporations, and the rich and powerful individuals who run them, to throttle the Internet at YOUR expense.”
Chairman Pai and his allies refused to maintain an open and honest debate on this issue. “Unlike its predecessors,” noted dissenting Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, “this FCC has not held a single public hearing on Net Neutrality.” In a statement that decried “the corrupt process that has brought us to this point,” Rosenworcel said: “This decision puts the Federal Communications Commission on the wrong side of history, the wrong side of the law, and the wrong side of the American public.”
This is not good. Not good for consumers. Not good for businesses. Not good for anyone who connects and creates online. Not good for the democratizing force that depends on openness to thrive. Moreover, it is not good for American leadership on the global stage of our new and complex digital world,
Rosenworcel said of the FCC vote.
I’m not alone with these concerns. Everyone from the creator of the world wide web to religious leaders to governors and mayors of big cities and small towns to musicians to actors and actresses to entrepreneurs and academics and activists has registered their upset and anger. They are reeling at how this agency could make this kind of mistake. They are wondering how it could be so tone deaf. And they are justifiably concerned that just a few un-elected officials could make such vast and far-reaching decisions about the future of the Internet.
So is the FCC’s 3-2 vote the end of it?
No. Net neutrality’s defenders will fight on in Congress, in the courts and at the ballot box to overturn this wrongheaded decision. Groups associated with the Voices for Internet Freedom Coalition—led by the Center for Media Justice, Color Of Change, Free Press Action Fund, the National Hispanic Media Coalition, and 18 Million Rising—intend to fight on for net neutrality with legislative and legal strategies.
They have reason to be confident.
Past legal victories tell us that wrongheaded decisions by the FCC can be blocked and overturned. “Let me be clear: Ajit Pai will not have the last word on Net Neutrality,” says Free Press President Craig Aaron.
Free Press intends to sue the FCC on the basis of its broken process, deeply flawed legal reasoning, willful rejection of evidence that contradicts its preordained conclusions, and absolute disregard for public input. We have a very strong case in court.
State attorneys general will also be suing. California, New York and Washington have all announced plans to sue — and New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman says he expects to that many more states will join the initiative.
Legal observers say as many as 18 states could sue. In addition to the chief law enforcement officers of California, New York and Washington, the attorneys general of 15 additional states signed a recent letter urging the FCC to delay the Net Neutrality vote: Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont and Virginia.
“While not all of us may agree on any given policy, we stand together today as prosecutors of fraud and as defenders of the democratic process,” that letter concluded. “It is essential that the Commission gets a full and accurate picture of how changes to net neutrality will affect the everyday lives of Americans before they can act on such sweeping policy changes.”
“I’m not going to give up—and neither should you,” says Rosenworcel.
If the arc of history is long, we are going to bend this toward a more just outcome. In the courts. In Congress. Wherever we need to go to ensure that Net Neutrality stays the law of the land. Because if you are conservative or progressive, you benefit from internet openness. If you come from a small town or big city, you benefit from Internet openness. If you are a company or non-profit, you benefit from Internet openness. If you are a start-up or an established business, you benefit from Internet openness. If you are a consumer or a creator, you benefit from Internet openness. If you believe in democracy, you benefit from Internet openness.
On a disappointing day for the defenders of democracy, the commissioner concluded by assuring them that this struggle is far from finished.
“So let’s persist. Let’s fight. Let’s not stop here or now,” declared Rosenworcel. “It’s too important. The future depends on it.”