Tech by VICE

If You Care About Net Neutrality, Run For Office

An influx of pro-internet politicians in city council seats, mayorships, and statehouse seats in the 2018 elections would help preserve the open internet.

by Jason Koebler
Jan 9 2018, 7:57pm

FCC commissioner Mignon Clyburn. Image: Chip Somodevilla/Getty

If you care about preserving net neutrality, the most important thing you could possibly do would be to run for political office on a platform that promises to protect the free and open internet and to roll back regulatory capture by big telecom.

Failing that, the second most important thing you could possibly do would be to support and vote for a political candidate who pledges to protect the internet.

At every level of government, big telecom has dominated the political process. Big telecom campaign contributions to members of Congress and Senators, as well as the actions of their lobbyists, have ensured loose regulation at the federal level and is the reason why we are unlikely to see a federal law protecting net neutrality without significant turnover during this year’s midterm elections.

Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer said Tuesday that “net neutrality will be a major issue in the 2018 congressional campaigns,” as many Democrats have vowed to fight FCC chairman Ajit Pai’s rollback of the regulations, while Republicans in Congress have generally supported Pai even though there is widespread agreement among voters on both sides of the aisle that net neutrality should be protected.

"It’s a great reason to run for office"

Schumer is right that internet freedom issues should play an important role in congressional campaigns, but the current situation we find ourselves in is not entirely or even largely a federal problem.

The main problem with broadband access and service in the US is that there is little regional competition between ISPs, meaning there is no incentive for them to actually provide good service to customers or to honor the principles of net neutrality (which would be a no-brainer in a truly competitive market). This is in large part due to local and state policy, not federal policy.

Local government agreements with the telecom industry and state-level legislation enacted by roughly half of all states have helped the industry maintain and ensure their monopolies. A large influx of new, pro-internet politicians in city council seats, mayorships, and statehouse seats would go a long way toward ensuring the playing field is leveled and net neutrality is preserved.

The good news is that broadband access and internet freedom (which were barely spoken about in the 2012 and 2016 election cycles) have finally become what political strategists call a “kitchen table issue” that can form the backbone of a successful campaign, especially in local and state races. As we saw in the recent elections in Virginia, New Jersey, and Alabama, there is widespread appetite for progressive first-time politicians who care deeply about improving the lives of those who live in their communities.

“Our theory of change is that we should run everyone everywhere for everything,” Ross Morales Rocketto, cofounder of the nonprofit group Run For Something, told me on the phone. “We should be running on local issues that people in that district care about … there are a lot of communities that don’t have good broadband access. If that’s a message that resonates with people, I would say it’s a great reason to run for office.”

Run For Something endorsed 72 candidates running for election in 2017 (primarily in Virginia and New Jersey); 32 of them won. The group plans to endorse roughly 1,000 this year, and hopes to have as many as 50,000 people show interest in running for office.

These state and local elections are exactly the type of seats that new politicians should be running for. Access to fast, cheap internet has been shown to improve a town or city’s economy, lure businesses to an area, and improve property values.

"Internet freedom is a winning issue that transcends party lines"

At a local level, politicians can run on platforms that promise to rip up noncompete agreements between municipalities and ISPs that prevent them from building locally owned ISPs or leasing dark fiber to local startups that could compete with big telecom. Candidates for mayor or city council could also run on a platform that promises to explore the feasibility of building municipally owned fiber, a broadband model in which local taxpayers own their internet connections.

At a state level, candidates can run on platforms that promise to repeal laws that prevent cities and municipalities from building their own internet connections. At least 23 states have these laws, which are largely identical and were uniformly lobbied for by big telecom to prevent cities and towns from building the aforementioned municipally owned fiber networks.

And then, at a congressional level, candidates can promise to not take funding from telecom companies, promise to fight for legislation that would enshrine net neutrality protections, and seek to fund rural broadband initiatives and close the digital divide in cities as well.

“Internet freedom is a winning issue that transcends party lines,” Kaniela Ing, a Hawaiian state legislator who recently proposed a bill to promote community-owned networks in the state told me on the phone. Ing is running for Congress this year on a platform of protecting the internet. “Most people in our generation are skeptical of large institutions, and we want to democratize access so that the internet is controlled by the folks who use it.”

If you are a prospective candidate who is running on a platform to protect net neutrality, build municipal networks, improve broadband access and competition, or roll-back anticompetitive state broadband laws, please contact us .