Public Interest Groups Urge FCC to Protect Net Neutrality Ahead of Key Hearing

Public Interest Groups Urge FCC to Protect Net Neutrality Ahead of Key Hearing

A battle is brewing over the future of federal open internet protections.
March 8, 2017, 2:07pm

Dozens of public interest groups on Tuesday urged President Trump's recently-installed top telecom regulator, Republican Ajit Pai, to protect net neutrality, the principle that all internet content should be equally accessible to consumers.

Pai has made no secret of his opposition to the Federal Communications Commission's net neutrality policy, much to the dismay of consumer advocates who say that the policy is necessary to promote economic growth, encourage civic engagement, and protect free speech.

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Pai is certain to face tough questions about his views on net neutrality when he appears before a key Senate committee on Wednesday morning.

The FCC's net neutrality policy prohibits internet service providers (ISPs) from favoring their own services or discriminating against rivals, thereby creating an open playing field for startups to thrive. Pai, a former Verizon lawyer tapped by Trump to lead the FCC, has been slowly chipping away at the FCC policy, with even more actions expected in the coming months.

Several Democratic senators have already made clear that they intend to resist any effort by Pai or his Republican allies in Congress to undermine net neutrality. That's a sentiment that Democratic lawmakers are certain to reiterate Wednesday during a FCC oversight hearing before the Senate Commerce Committee.

"The big broadband barons and their Republican allies want to turn back the clock and make big cable and big cellphone companies the gatekeepers for internet access," Sen. Edward J. Markey, the Massachusetts Democrat, warned during a press conference last month. "And they have a new FCC chairman in Ajit Pai who will do their bidding."

"Net neutrality ensures that everyone with access to the internet can organize and share their opinions online equally."

On Tuesday, a coalition of 171 public interest groups urged Pai and leading lawmakers, including Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John Thune, the South Dakota Republican, and Ranking Member Bill Nelson, the Florida Democrat, to safeguard the FCC's net neutrality policy.

"The continuation of net neutrality is essential to the continued growth of the country and to ensuring access to social, political, and economic empowerment for all," the coalition wrote in a letter, which was signed by the American Civil Liberties Union, the Center for Media Justice, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the National Organization for Women, Open MIC, and dozens of other groups.

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"Net neutrality ensures that everyone with access to the internet can organize and share their opinions online equally, a key safeguard for our democracy," the coalition wrote. "It ensures that ISPs are not arbiters of speech and expression online by favoring particular forums or providing enhanced access to specific content and audiences."

Without net neutrality, which has largely been the internet's status quo for decades, innovative companies like Netflix and Skype might have have been snuffed out by the dominant ISPs, according to open internet advocates. In 2015, the FCC approved a landmark set of rules codifying net neutrality by reclassifying ISPs as "common carriers" under federal law.

"The nation's thriving digital economy over the last several decades owes much of its success to the de facto observance of principles which have guaranteed equal access to the internet for everyone," Michael Connor, Executive Director of Open MIC, a digital rights group, said in an emailed statement. "Eliminating open internet principles will make it far more difficult for the next generation of tech innovators—the next Google, the next Amazon—to compete and grow."

Net neutrality is particularly important for underserved communities, according to Steven Renderos, Organizing Director at the nonprofit Center for Media Justice.

"Without net neutrality, marginalized groups will lose one of the most fundamental avenues we have to raise a dissenting voice," Renderos said in an emailed statement. "Our hope is that our elected representatives choose to fight for the digital rights of everyday people and join us in resisting every and any effort to strip us of an open internet."

FCC Chairman Pai will be joined at Wednesday's Senate Commerce Committee hearing by his Republican FCC colleague Michael O'Rielly, as well as FCC commissioner Mignon Clyburn, the sole remaining Democrat at the agency following the departure of two of her colleagues earlier this year.

On Monday, Pai met with President Trump in the White House, but "no proceedings pending at the FCC were discussed," according to an agency spokesperson. On Tuesday, the White House announced that it had renominated Pai for a second five-year term at the agency.

"If I am fortunate to be confirmed by the Senate, I will continue to work with my colleagues to connect all Americans with digital opportunity, foster innovation, protect consumers, promote public safety, and make the FCC more open and transparent to the American people," Pai said in a statement.

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