Net neutrality must be restored. that’s a given. the decision in December by the Federal Communications Commission to abolish the First Amendment of the Internet was, in the words of dissenting commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, “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.”
So, yes, net neutrality must be renewed. But how? Ideally, Congress would pass legislation reversing the FCC’s decision, or a federal court order would overturn it. But that could take time—years, perhaps—and if we’ve learned anything about the digital age, it’s that the future doesn’t wait for Washington to catch up.
So the pressure is now on state officials to take the lead in restoring a free and open Internet. Democratic governors and state legislators, by and large, get this. But like most of their partisan counterparts in Washington, Republicans in the states continue to position themselves on the wrong side of the issue. As errand boys for the corporations that would sacrifice open access on the altar of rank profiteering, Republican governors have already benefited from the money lavished on them and on the Republican Governors Association by the telecommunications conglomerates that hope to subdivide the Internet.
The good news is that even as these GOP governors, attorneys general, and legislators abandon the public interest, the Democrats seeking to replace them are emerging as outspoken champions of net neutrality and of a broader vision for the future of the Internet. This is smart policy and smart politics, as polling suggests that 83 percent of Americans support net neutrality and that the issue is especially important to the young voters the party hopes to mobilize this fall. Democrats in the states are increasingly recognizing that what has historically been seen as a federal matter must now be an issue at every level of American politics.
The role that Congress can play in renewing this country’s commitment to a free and open Internet is reasonably well understood, and the lines of division are clear. House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell have shown little inclination to restore net neutrality—but all is not lost in the Senate. Maine Republican Susan Collins broke with her party in January and joined 49 Democrats in supporting a Congressional Review Act resolution sponsored by Massachusetts Democrat Ed Markey. The CRA initiative, which seeks to reverse the FCC’s decision, requires one more supporter for the resolution to pass, and a “One More Vote” campaign to get the next Republican on board has been launched by groups including Fight for the Future and Demand Progress.
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This sets the stage not merely for a legislative response but for an electoral game plan. It frames net neutrality as a key issue in the 2018 midterms—something smart candidates like Texas Democrat Beto O’Rourke, who is challenging Senator Ted Cruz, have already recognized. On the campaign trail, O’Rourke has successfully highlighted the difference between himself and Cruz on this issue, going so far as to cut a video targeted at small-business owners, who will be particularly harmed by any narrowing of access to the Internet. “Standing together,” O’Rourke says in the video, “we are more than a match for the corporations and the special interests, and we will be able to restore net neutrality to the Internet, and make sure that we will have an open and free Internet for everyone in this country to use.”
Hopefully, O’Rourke will be proved right. House minority leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer have both indicated that digital democracy will be on the agenda in 2019 if Democrats win Congress this year—a tall order, but certainly not an impossible one. And strong votes by Congress, combined with aggressive negotiations with the administration, could tilt the balance back toward digital democracy.
Congressional candidates like Texan Laura Moser—who wrote a primer on net neutrality as part of her bid for a GOP-held seat that Democrats are aiming to flip—have already campaigned aggressively on the issue. Other contenders have been offered a template by Congressional Progressive Caucus member Ro Khanna, a tech-savvy California Democrat who proposes an Internet Bill of Rights. In addition to net neutrality, his platform includes the right to universal access; the right to be free from warrantless metadata collection; the right to disclose the amount, nature, and dates of secret data requests by the government; the right to be fully informed concerning the scope of your data’s use; and the right to be informed when there’s a change of control over your data.
“The reality is that our laws have lagged far behind our technological capabilities, resulting in widespread encroachment on our civil liberties,” argues Khanna, who affirmed the importance of net neutrality as a deputy assistant secretary of commerce in the Obama administration. Khanna warns that “Congress has been asleep at the switch” on a host of digital issues.
But no matter what happens on Capitol Hill or in the federal courts, where public-interest groups are challenging the FCC’s ruling, net neutrality must also be an issue in the states. On that front, the states where Democrats hold top posts have already moved to defend net neutrality. Twenty-two Democratic state attorneys general have filed a lawsuit seeking to block the FCC’s decision, and Democratic candidates for attorney general in Republican-led states are sending signals like that of Arizona Democrat January Contreras, who declared after plans for a suit were announced: “Sign me up. As AZ Attorney General, I’ll fight the good fight. Our right to communicate freely on the Internet is too important to be silent.”
Montana’s Democratic governor, Steve Bullock, isn’t waiting for Congress or the courts. In January, he issued an executive order requiring telecommunications companies that seek to do business with the state to maintain net-neutrality standards. California, Hawaii, New York, New Jersey, Oregon, and Vermont have made, or are in the process of making, similar moves. In Washington State in early March, legislators approved a sweeping measure that bars telecom firms in the state from impairing or degrading “lawful Internet traffic” and specifically prohibits them from providing faster service for content from companies and campaigns that write bigger checks. This law would be a fine model for Democrats, as well as responsible Republicans and independents, who are running in other states.
Congressman Jared Polis, a tech entrepreneur before he was elected to the House, is running for governor of Colorado with a detailed agenda for expanding access to broadband service. In an op-ed for the alternative Denver weekly newspaper Westword, Polis linked his plan to net neutrality, arguing:
In a state like Colorado, where broadband access is scarce in rural communities, many consumers are lucky to have even one high-speed internet provider available to them. Without net neutrality, these consumers will have nowhere to go if their provider decides to limit access to websites and web-based services.
Rural Coloradans could lose access to telemedicine they rely on for health care if their internet provider chooses to increase costs for these data-intensive services. It would be especially devastating in high-need communities where consumers have few other health-care options. Without net neutrality protections, fewer people would be able to telecommute, clogging up our highways and roads even more.
Michigan Democratic gubernatorial candidate Abdul El-Sayed, a Rhodes scholar and former head of the Detroit Health Department, has also made digital issues one of his campaign’s priorities—as have other contenders in a competitive primary season. On his campaign website, El-Sayed includes the following promises: “Provide high-speed broadband internet to every community in Michigan and protect net neutrality.”
In New Mexico, Representative Michelle Lujan Grisham, who is running for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, issued a statement warning that, “after explicitly ignoring millions of Americans supporting net neutrality, the FCC’s decision to dismantle equal access to the internet undermines important protections for users. This will jeopardize economic growth in New Mexico and across the country, where innovators and small companies depend on an open, free, and fair internet.”
Meanwhile, in Wisconsin, Democratic gubernatorial contender Mike McCabe describes the FCC’s decision as a recipe for “Internet Apartheid” and says: “Not much imagination is required to see how Internet Apartheid also would shape our politics once the electoral impact of the digital age reaches full flower. The marketplace of ideas would be further tilted in favor of big-money interests. Citizens or groups without the means to buy top-tier service would be further disadvantaged. Political innovation would be further stifled.” One of McCabe’s Democratic rivals, Madison Mayor Paul Soglin, has also been an important figure in the national effort to organize municipal leaders in support of net neutrality. Still another contender, former state Democratic Party chair Matt Flynn, has developed a “21st Century Bill of Rights.” It declares the following:
1. Internet users have the right to a free and open Internet. The State of Wisconsin is obligated to protect Net Neutrality.
2. All Wisconsin citizens have the right to high-speed broadband Internet access.
3. Local communities in Wisconsin have the right to form municipal broadband districts to preserve Net Neutrality, keep prices reasonable, and provide high-speed Internet to those currently without access.
4. Internet users in Wisconsin have the right to digital privacy from state and local government. The government may not access user accounts without just cause.
5. Private individuals in Wisconsin have the right to digital privacy from other private Internet users.
6. Wisconsin citizens have the right to protection from Internet fraud and unfair practices.
7. Wisconsin citizens have the right to free and fair elections, safe from digital interference.
8. The State of Wisconsin has the right and the responsibility to take full measures to protect itself from cyber-attacks.
9. Wisconsin students have the right to computer education to prepare them for the future.
10. Wisconsin citizens have both the right to access an Internet free of censorship and the right to know when information on the Internet is false, misleading, or satirical.
“As our lives have moved increasingly online, we need to enumerate our digital rights,” Flynn says of his effort.
He’s right, not just about net neutrality but about the broader issue of how to determine our digital destiny. Too many decisions about the role of the Internet in our lives and in our democracy have been made by multinational corporations and unelected (and often conflicted) regulators. The emergence of net neutrality as an election issue suggests a route by which voters can finally and firmly assert a public interest in the sprawling international computer system that provides the information and opportunities all Americans need.