President Donald J. Trump's administration poses a grave threat to net neutrality, according to open internet advocates, but leading Democrats and progressive activists are not going to let the internet's open access principle get killed without a fight.
That was the message delivered Tuesday by a group of prominent Democratic US senators during a press conference in which they vowed to fiercely resist any effort by federal regulators or Congress to undermine the principle that all internet content should be equally accessible to users.
"Net neutrality is the foundation for 21st century education, health-care and the innovation that created the largest new US employers in the past 20 years," said Sen. Ron Wyden, the Oregon Democrat. "I will be standing alongside the millions of Americans who support strong net neutrality rules and oppose any such efforts."
Net neutrality is the principle that everyone, including consumers, start-up companies, and tech giants alike, should have equal access to the internet. In 2015, the FCC issued rules under Title II of the Communications Act to reclassify broadband providers as "common carriers." That gave the FCC the legal authority to prohibit broadband giants from blocking, throttling, or discriminating against rival content.
Progressive activist groups are preparing for a brawl over this issue.
"Donald Trump is going to have to pry net neutrality from my cold dead hands."
"Donald Trump is going to have to pry net neutrality from my cold dead hands," said Winnie Wong, a leading political organizer and co-author of the Women's March on Washington unity principles. "We will organize huge numbers of people to turn out in the streets to protect the open internet."
For Wong, net neutrality means more than just commerce or inside-baseball DC intrigue. It's about free speech and the ability to reach her colleagues and constituents online to coordinate the movement of movements, and the delegation of distributed direct action across the country and around the world.
"The architects of the internet and the defenders of net neutrality are the people who have created the conditions that allow progressive activists to organize and build our networks of opposition to Trump at scale," Wong told Motherboard. "We will fight to defend the open internet."
The decade-long war over net neutrality has taken on new urgency with Trump's decision to appoint Republican Ajit Pai to lead the Federal Communications Commission. Pai, a former Verizon lawyer, has made clear that he intends to dismantle the legal basis underpinning net neutrality, in a move that will delight the nation's largest cable and phone companies.
The FCC's 2015 decision prompted a furor. Cable and telecom giants like AT&T, Verizon and Comcast were are no longer legally allowed to charge more for preferred access to startups and consumers. Hence the dispute, which remains gummed up in the DC Circuit.
Open internet advocates say strong net neutrality safeguards are needed to prevent internet service providers (ISPs) like Comcast, AT&T, and Verizon from creating online fast lanes for their own content or discriminating against rival services. The telecom giants, and their Republican allies in Congress, accuse the FCC of overstepping its authority and shackling their business models.
Last week, Pai reversed several pro-consumer initiatives, including the agency's zero-rating review, a first indication of his forthcoming takedown of the FCC's net neutrality policy.
"A fight is about to break out on a critical issue about democracy and competition."
"A fight is about to break out on a critical issue about democracy and competition in our country," said Sen. Edward J. Markey, the Massachusetts Democrat. "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. And they have a new FCC chairman in Ajit Pai who will do their bidding."
In a statement emailed to Motherboard, a FCC spokesperson said that Pai "supports a free and open internet but opposes heavy-handed Title II regulation. The internet was free and open before the 2015 party-line vote imposing these Depression-Era regulations."
The internet was largely free and open before 2015, because net neutrality is, and for decades has been, the status quo, which is why it's easy to take for granted. The FCC's policy merely codifies the principle, using Title II reclassification, in a way that is legally defensible against broadband industry attacks.
Open Internet advocates argue that the FCC's net neutrality policy is essential for economic growth, online innovation, civic empowerment, and free speech.
"I have called net neutrality the free speech issue of our time, because the basic principles of our democracy are at stake," said Sen. Al Franken, the Minnesota Democrat. "That's why I'm concerned about the new FCC head Ajit Pai. He has repeatedly sided with corporations over consumers, and his number one target appears to be taking down net neutrality."
Franken pointed out that two years ago, nearly four million people delivered public comments to the FCC in favor of strong net neutrality rules. Senate Democrats say that kind of grassroots uprising in defense of net neutrality will be needed again to defend the idea of an open internet. At that time, there was a huge grassroots movement against SOPA and PIPA.
"We're in for a fight, and there is much at stake," said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat from Connecticut. "Allowing a broadband provider to block or discriminate against certain content providers is not only a threat to the continued success of America's innovators and job-creators, it is also a danger to free speech—one of the core principles of our democracy—at a time when so many of our First Amendment rights are threatened."