President Trump's top telecom regulator is racing forward to kill US net neutrality rules despite strong bipartisan support among Americans for preserving net neutrality under the current federal policy, according to a new public opinion poll released Monday.
Net neutrality is the principle that internet service providers (ISPs) like AT&T and Verizon shouldn't be able to discriminate against rival services or sell internet fast lanes to the highest bidder. Open internet advocates argue that net neutrality ensures that the internet remains an open and vibrant platform for innovation, economic growth and free speech.
The vast majority of Americans agree, according to the new poll, which found that 77 percent of those surveyed support the Federal Communications Commission's net neutrality protections, as codified in the FCC's 2015 Open Internet order. Support for the FCC's policy crosses party lines, with 73 percent of Republicans, 80 percent of Democrats, and 76 percent of independents in favor of the rules, according to the poll, which backs up other recent surveys.
"The poll results are unsurprising and reflect what we have known for some time—the 2015 net neutrality rules are extremely popular with all Americans, regardless of party affiliation," Gigi Sohn, who served as counselor to former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, told Motherboard.
Trump's handpicked FCC chief, former Verizon lawyer Ajit Pai, is moving swiftly to dismantle the rules, despite strong protest from open internet advocates, online startups, and tech giants like Google and Amazon, which are planning a "day of action" on July 12 to protest the rollback.
Former FCC Commissioner Michael Copps, a longtime open internet champion, told Motherboard that the poll "confirms what I'm hearing from all over the country—people want to control their own internet experiences rather than have powerful gatekeepers do it for them."
Some 81 percent of Americans believe that ISPs should not be able to block or throttle websites, or charge websites for prioritized access to consumers, according to the poll, which was conducted late last month by data science firm Civis Analytics on behalf of DC-based Freedman Consulting. (Civis Analytics' investors include Verizon Ventures and Eric Schmidt, Chairman of Google parent company Alphabet.)
In late June, pollsters asked 2,475 American adults about their opinions on net neutrality in an online survey. The poll was supplemented with a phone poll of 256 adults during the same time period.
"Ajit Pai doesn't get that consumer-friendly net neutrality is widely supported in so-called Trump country."
The FCC is accepting public comments on Pai's proposal until July 17; reply comments will be due on August 16, unless the FCC extends the process. After that, a final FCC decision on the plan could take several more months.
"Ajit Pai doesn't get that consumer-friendly net neutrality is widely supported in so-called Trump country," said Copps. "Voters there don't like gatekeeping and rising broadband prices any more than I do. This is not a partisan issue once you get outside the Beltway."
Open internet advocates say strong net neutrality protections are particularly important at a time when ISPs are moving aggressively into the content business. Verizon now owns Yahoo and AOL, and AT&T is in the process of buying content giant Time Warner, which would give the telecom titan control of HBO, CNN and Warner Bros. And of course, Comcast already owns NBCUniversal, the parent company of NBC, MSNBC and Universal Pictures.
The nation's largest broadband companies assert that they support net neutrality, but without strong FCC protections, ISPs could be tempted to favor their own content offerings at the expense of rival services, open internet advocates argue. These corporate giants might even try to transform the internet into something akin to cable TV, in which consumers are charged fees for access to "premium" services like Spotify, Netflix or YouTube, open internet advocates warn.
"Americans want the freedom to control their internet experience, and don't want Comcast, AT&T and Charter to take that away from them," said Sohn. "Only strong net neutrality rules will prevent those companies from turning the decentralized internet into command and control cable TV."
Some 88 percent of the poll's respondents agreed with the statement that "when I buy internet service, I am paying to transmit information between my computer and the websites I visit, free from interference." This suggests strong support for the FCC's 2015 decision to reclassify broadband providers as Title II "information services"—a move that Pai is now working to dismantle.
A FCC spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the new poll.
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