Ten years of fighting for internet freedom, potentially out the window because Donald Trump was elected president and chose as his top telecom regulator a former Verizon lawyer who's hell-bent on killing federal rules safeguarding net neutrality, the internet's open access principle.
That's the prospect facing open internet advocates following Wednesday's announcement that Trump's Federal Communications Commission chief, Republican Ajit Pai, intends to dismantle the legal basis for the FCC's landmark 2015 policy protecting net neutrality, the principle that all internet content should be treated equally.
Open internet advocates slammed Pai's proposal as just the latest in a long list of brazen Trump-era giveaways to multi-billion dollar corporations at the expense of consumers. And they vowed to organize a massive grassroots effort to resist Pai's plan, which is set to be voted on next month by the Republican-controlled FCC.
"By attacking net neutrality, the basic free speech protections that have made the internet what it is today, Team Cable's puppet chairman Ajit Pai is not just threatening the future of the internet, but the future of democracy and freedom of expression," said Evan Greer, campaign director of advocacy group Fight for the Future. "Hell hath no fury like the internet scorned. We'll fight tooth and nail to defend net neutrality and keep the web free from censorship."
Broadband giants like Comcast, AT&T and Verizon greeted Pai's announcement warmly, because they hate the FCC's policy, which prohibits them from favoring their own content, discriminating against rival services, or charging startups for access to internet fast lanes. The policy also prevents these companies from blocking controversial viewpoints or political dissent on their networks.
Open internet advocates and digital rights groups argue that the FCC's net neutrality rules are essential for maintaining the internet as an open platform for economic growth, online innovation, citizen empowerment, political organizing and free speech. At a Wednesday press conference, Democratic FCC commissioner Mignon Clyburn, a longtime net neutrality champion, said that Pai's plan "will dismantle the open internet as we know it."
"The head of the FCC, the person responsible for leading an agency chartered by Congress to uphold the public interest, just issued a hall pass to the nation's largest broadband providers while leaving those we took an oath to protect, the American consumer, back in detention," said Clyburn, who has taken to social media to promote her public interest philosophy using the hashtag #ConsumersFirst.
"Chairman Pai needs to cease his endless assault on internet freedom and net neutrality."
Rep. Ro Khanna, a California Democrat who represents Silicon Valley, issued a statement demanding that Pai "cease his endless assault on internet freedom and net neutrality."
"This proposal would concentrate power to a handful of internet service providers and hinder innovation for both startups and consumers," said Khanna. "FCC commissioners should refuse to accept Pai's proposal and keep the current legal framework that guarantees a free and open internet. To do otherwise puts our economy and what this country stands for at risk."
Minutes after Pai's Wednesday announcement, open internet activists announced a broad coalition of leading public interest groups aimed at mobilizing a massive grassroots resistance movement, starting with a goal of one million public comments delivered to the FCC opposing Pai's plan over the next month. The coalition has launched a crowdfunding campaign to support a central online hub for organizing efforts.
"Net neutrality advocates can't match the lobbying dollars spent by the country's cable monopolies and duopolies, but we clearly have the public on our side," said David Segal, executive director of advocacy group Demand Progress. "In recent years, millions have mobilized to stand up for an open internet, which is critical to our democracy. Now, with Chairman Pai announcing his intentions to roll back net neutrality protections, advocates will again use the internet to save the internet."
During his Wednesday announcement, Pai made a series of highly misleading statements, according to open internet advocates. For example, Pai claimed that the FCC's policy has led to "government control of the internet." This is false. The FCC doesn't "control" the internet any more than the Food and Drug Administration "controls" the pharmaceutical industry. The FCC's rules merely establish the agency as a "cop on the beat" to prevent anti-consumer abuses by broadband giants that often wield near-monopoly power in many US markets.
Pai also claimed that the FCC's policy caused the nation's 12 largest internet service providers to decrease their broadband capital investment after the rules were approved in 2015. Free Press, a DC-based public interest group, strongly disputes that assertion. In fact, the group found that among publicly traded broadband companies, capital expenditures actually increased by 5.3 percent in 2015-2016 compared to 2013-2014. Comcast, the nation's largest broadband increased its spending by 26.6 percent over that period, Free Press found.
"Pai is lying about investment and wooing the right-wing fringe to continue his long-standing war on internet freedom," said Craig Aaron, Free Press President and CEO. "His willingness to trot out alternative facts and recycle long-debunked industry talking points should worry anyone who cares about the free and open internet."