There is no question that the American people favor net neutrality. They are literally flooding the Federal Communications Commission with pleas for preservation of “The First Amendment of the Internet.”
Americans know that without net neutrality’s guarantee of equal treatment of all content, the balance will be tipped toward messages from the billionaire class that already dominates too much of the national—and international—debate. The people are aroused and engaged with this issue. They are speaking up as never before: voicing objections to Trump administration schemes to barter off the digital discourse to the highest bidder.
But that does not mean that the American people will get what they want. Donald Trump’s chairman of the FCC, Ajit Pai, has repeatedly signaled that he wants to dismantle the net-neutrality protections that were put in place during the Obama years after a massive campaign by democracy advocates, consumer groups, and defenders of a free and open Internet.
If Pai’s FCC votes later this summer for that dismantlement, the future of personal communications, education, commerce, economic arrangements, and democracy itself will be radically altered. The fight over net neutrality is about much more than the fight over whether telecommunications companies will be able to create “fast lanes” for paying content from corporations and billionaire-funded politicians while relegating the essential informational sharing of civil society to “slow lanes” on the periphery of what was supposed to be “the information superhighway.” Because our lives are now so digital, and because they are becoming so automated, the fight over net neutrality is really the fight over the whole of the future.
It comes down to a simple question: Will that future be defined by civic and democratic values? Or will it defined by commercial and entertainment values?
The telecommunications companies have an answer. They want to colonize the Internet, as they have other communications platforms, with an eye toward reaping immense and unwarranted profits. And they are willing to pay almost anything for that privilege. According to a fresh study from the nonpartisan MapLight project to reveal the influence of money in politics: “Three of the largest internet service providers and the cable television industry’s primary trade association have spent more than a half-billion dollars lobbying the federal government during the past decade on issues that include net neutrality.”
The MapLight analysis explains that “Comcast, AT&T, Verizon and the National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA) have spent $572 million on attempts to influence the FCC and other government agencies since 2008. The FCC, a five-member independent panel, is considering the abolition of ‘net neutrality’ rules, or regulations that require internet companies to treat all content equally. The amount represents more than $100 for each of the 5.6 million public comments on the FCC’s proposed elimination of net neutrality rules.”
Communications by citizens with the FCC have over the years been overwhelmingly supportive of net neutrality. And there is no reason to doubt that when the current comment period ends, the message from the American people will have been one of absolute support for a free and open Internet. As Free Press’s Tim Karr notes: “The irony [is that] despite $572 million spent by the telecom lobby, the majority of FCC comments oppose their position and favor net neutrality.” Polls confirm the sentiment: a Civis Analytics survey released Monday found that, nationwide, 73 percent of Republicans, 76 percent of independents, and 80 percent of Democrats want to maintain the existing open-Internet rules.
The issue that will be resolved in coming weeks is whether the voice of the people will be drowned out by a flood of corporate cash.
Only the loudest and most sustained objections will save the Internet as we know it—and shape a future in which the digital promise is shared by all.
To that end, civil-society groups have organized a July 12 “Day of Action” to mobilize support for the open-Internet protections that are now threatened by the Trump administration. “The day of action, led by Free Press Action Fund, Fight for the Future and Demand Progress, will focus on mass participation as public-interest groups across the country activate their members and major web platforms provide visitors with tools to mobilize locally, contact Congress, and submit more pro-Net Neutrality comments to the FCC,” explains Free Press, which adds that, “So far, more than 70,000 websites, online services, and internet users are participating in the day of action, including companies like Airbnb, Amazon, Etsy, Facebook, Google, Kickstarter, Mozilla, Netflix, OKCupid, reddit, Spotify, and Twitter.”
The FCC’s ultimate decision on net neutrality will, as MapLight suggests, provide “a clear indicator of the power of corporate cash in a Trump administration.”
If corporate cash wins this one, telecommunications conglomerates will define the Internet in their interest—and the “paid content” messages of powerful and privileged elites will define debates about politics, economics and society itself.
That’s not a prospect that any citizen should welcome, or accept.
That’s why July 12 must be a day of action not just for the future of the Internet but for the whole of the future.