It's been called "the free speech issue of our time."
But many Americans may not realize just how important net neutrality—the internet's open access principle—is for economic growth, civic empowerment, and political activism.
Net neutrality is the concept that every website and online service should be equally accessible to all people. That means everyone—from consumers to innovators to activists—has open access to the internet.
From a consumer perspective, net neutrality means that users can access a giant over-the-top online video product like HBO GO just as easily as they can reach a smaller service like Vimeo. It also means that internet service providers (ISPs) like Comcast, AT&T and Verizon can't favor their own video or communications tools at the expense of rivals.
One month into the Trump presidency, net neutrality is under attack by the Republicans who run Trump's FCC and the GOP lawmakers who control Congress. To do this, these officials intend to hand the broadband industry a gift on a silver platter, by dismantling the legal basis for the policy, which relies on Title II of the Communications Act and classifies ISPs as "common carriers," thereby requiring them to maintain open access to the internet.
The president himself famously denigrated net neutrality in 2014 during a bizarre Twitter attack in which he compared net neutrality to the now-defunct FCC Fairness Doctrine, a Cold War-era throwback that required the news media to air opposing views. By making that comparison, Trump not only demonstrated his complete ignorance of internet policy issues, he also inadvertently—and with an utter lack of self-awareness or irony—highlighted the importance of the open internet, which enables him to spew his spur-of-the-moment, early-morning rage-tweets to millions of people.
Trump may not understand the importance of net neutrality to the US economy and political system, but many political activists do, which is why they're speaking out now about the internet's importance to American society—and the need to keep our collective online platform free and open.
"Net neutrality is not simply about technology," said Steven Renderos, Organizing Director at the Center for Media Justice, at a Capitol Hill panel discussion on Monday featuring prominent political organizers. "It's about the everyday people who use it and whether they will have the right to be heard online. Two years ago, the FCC affirmed that everyone, regardless of class or race, deserves access to a media platform that does not discriminate."
The concept of net neutrality, which was codified two years ago in the Federal Communications Commission's 2015 Open Internet order, is important because the major US ISPs have ample economic incentive to favor their own services at the expense of rivals. For example, Comcast, AT&T, Verizon, which exert near-monopoly power over internet access in many cities around the country, all have video and communications offerings that directly compete with services like Netflix and Skype.
Without net neutrality, these corporate giants could slow down or even block rival services, not to mention the next generation of startups that depend on internet freedom. If these broadband titans are allowed the right to stifle online creativity and entrepreneurship, it could snuff out the very engine of innovation that has generated billions of dollars of US economic activity and created millions of jobs.
That would be bad news for America.
"Net neutrality will be the cornerstone that activists use to strengthen social movements and build organized resistance."
Trump's recently-installed FCC chairman, former Verizon lawyer Ajit Pai, has made it clear that he intends to dismantle the agency's net neutrality policy. Earlier this month, Pai stopped the FCC's inquiry into zero-rating, a controversial practice in which ISPs exempt certain services from data caps, effectively favoring those offerings at the expense of rivals. And last week, Pai moved to throw out key net neutrality transparency rules for millions of consumers.
As Trump's authoritarian tendencies come into sharper relief with each passing day, it's becoming very clear that net neutrality is not just about creating a level playing field so the next generation of online startups can flourish. It's also about free speech—a principle that's under increasing attack by President Trump, who has declared America's free press an "enemy of the people," using ominous language reminiscent of totalitarian dictators like Stalin.
"Net neutrality is unequivocally fundamental to free speech," said Winnie Wong, a veteran political activist involved in Occupy Wall Street, People For Bernie, and the Women's March on Washington. "An unfettered open internet is our marketplace of ideas. It allows for billions of people around the world to access information, share opinions and engage in transparent public discourse."
"With the rise of Trump and other neo-fascist regimes around the world, net neutrality will be the cornerstone that activists use to strengthen social movements and build organized resistance," Wong told Motherboard in a phone interview. "Knowledge is power."
Wong isn't the only political organizer who understands the importance of net neutrality. The idea of the internet as an open platform for free speech, civic engagement and political organizing—not just a vehicle for minting the next Silicon Valley "unicorn"—is gaining new currency in activist circles.
"An open internet protected by Title II net neutrality is vital for a new generation of Black and Brown activists to expose a very old story of inequality and discrimination, and stand up against the infringement of the government on our people," Dante Barry, Executive Director at Million Hoodies Movement for Justice, a civil rights group, said in a statement.
"Without an open platform for free speech and free expression, we will be in trouble."
Net neutrality is especially important for marginalized groups that feel threatened by Trump.
"Without an open platform for free speech and free expression, we will be in trouble," said Mignon Clyburn, the lone Democratic FCC commissioner remaining at the five-member agency. "Now it is time for us to once again roll up our sleeves and fight for the protections embodied in the Open Internet order, that are designed to ensure that the internet remains an open platform, that enables free speech, freedom of expression and the ability for innovation to flourish."
Net neutrality is easy to take for granted, in part because it was baked into the decentralized architecture of the internet by the engineers who developed the internet and the World Wide Web decades ago. That's why so many of the internet's pioneers, people like Vint Cerf and Tim Berners-Lee, are staunch supporters of net neutrality. They know, as do so many technologists, how crucial net neutrality is to maintaining the internet as an open platform for innovation, economic growth, and free speech.
Like the cherished American democratic principle of one-person one-vote, net neutrality is a great equalizer. It means that everyone, from the wealthiest capitalist baron to the poorest newly-arrived immigrant, has equal access to the tremendous online commons that we call the internet. But unlike the American electoral process, which in many ways has become corrupted by the influence of money, the internet still remains an open platform for democracy, in all its messy glory.
"We will not allow Donald Trump to take away internet freedom," said Wong. "We will take this fight to the halls of Congress and to the streets of our cities to ensure that all people have open access to the internet."