But, First…What IS Net Neutrality?
Although it seems we were suddenly hearing about it starting in late 2017, the conversation around Net Neutrality is almost two decades old. It’s even older, if you include the era before the term was popularized by Timothy Wu in 2002.
Net Neutrality is the basic principle that enables and protects our free speech on the internet. The early years of the internet were marked by heady optimism about its potential for innovation and freedom. Harvard Law professor and political activist Lawrence Lessig, in a talk given at the ninth World Wide Web Conference (2000), describes the internet’s “end-to-end” design for efficiency as the reason it has the capability for competitive neutrality. “What end-to-end meant was that the network was not in a position to discriminate.” He points to its potential for innovation too. “Innovators knew that if they designed a new application or new form of content, the network would run it. … The test of success thus was not whether the innovation fit with the business model of the network owner; the test of success was whether the market demanded it.” Net Neutrality regulations act as anti-discrimination law and allow for robust innovation through healthy competition, according to Tim Wu.
The internet has been determined by the courts to be a public utility. The United States Court of Appeals ruled on this in 2015 in a fight against big telecom and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) after an outcry of millions of activists for a free and open internet. Also in 2015, the FCC reclassified broadband providers as common carriers under Title II, which meant big telecom couldn’t block, throttle (intentionally slow down or speed up service), charge apps or sites extra fees to reach an audience, or otherwise interfere with web traffic — thus preserving Net Neutrality.
What Happened to Net Neutrality?
On December 14, 2017, the FCC under Trump voted to gut Net Neutrality rules, paving the way for internet providers to control what we can see and do online with new fees, throttling, and censorship. Three non-elected officials ratified the future of the world’s internet, dismissing the values of 83% of U.S. citizens. The newly appointed Chairman, Ajit Pai, a former Verizon lawyer, pushed for this and announced the plans just before Thanksgiving. He has given no reason for discounting public comments against the plan or for stopping the New York Attorney General’s investigation of stolen identities used to submit comments to the FCC in support of that agency’s plan.
Critics of Net Neutrality argue that regulation decreases innovation and development because it restricts big telecom, which would supposedly use its vast resources for innovation, otherwise. The majority argue the opposite, that innovation will be stifled when big telecom has the power to control access to the internet.
How This Affects You
You use the internet every day, for a variety of purposes. You need it to apply for almost any job, check your credit, book a trip, or look up contact information. You may use the internet to gather or share information about social and/or environmental justice issues. You may rely on it for news, communication, or emergency warnings. Imagine finding favorite sites blocked by your Internet Service Provider (ISP) or having to pay for access to them. Could you, your friends, or associates afford to pay?
Is internet access a luxury, as FCC Commissioner Michael O’Reilly would have us believe? World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee and the United Nations say it’s become a human right. Today, the internet is used heavily in all aspects of life (education, medicine, government, business, media, etc.), making it all but indispensable in the modern world.
What Does Net Neutrality Have to Do with Co-ops?
Co-ops have much in common with the internet in their usefulness in connecting and educating people, and in sharing information. As co-op members, we could commit to strengthening a free and open internet, perhaps along with other co-ops, just as co-op members have worked with other cooperatives to strengthen the cooperative movement.
The open internet can help create a community or build existing networks. The Willy Street Grocery Co-op, in Madison Wisconsin, lists seven guiding cooperative principles on their website, willystreet.coop, such as “Cooperatives work for the sustainable development of their communities,” and “Co-ops are open to all without gender, social, racial, political, or religious discrimination.” Net Neutrality, similarly, disallows discrimination and ensures affordable access.
- Also from the Willy Street Co-op, “Cooperatives provide education and training for Owners so they can contribute effectively to the development of their cooperatives.” The Internet helps people learn to cooperatively develop their own corner of the world.
- Co-ops are governed through democratic process. The Honest Weight Food Co-op’s Statements of Conscience reflect the sharing of information for the benefit of all – like the Internet! For democracy to thrive, we need free access to information, education to discern accurate from inaccurate information, freedom to share information, and freedom to organize and build community. At Honest Weight, Member-Owners use the internet to share information with the Membership.
- From Honest Weight’s website, “We are committed to encouraging an environment where ideas and philosophies can be generated, shared, and expressed freely.” Net Neutrality can generate (or innovate), share, and express ideas without censorship.
- We need Net Neutrality to help us fight oppression in supporting movements like Black Lives Matter and Save the Internet. The internet allows misrepresented and underrepresented people to speak out individually and collectively for justice by enabling them to call thousands of people to action.
Why the Fight Has Gone on so Long
This long fight over Net Neutrality has been fueled by the extensive resources at the disposal of big telecom to protect its interests. Below are some highlights of actions that have been taken in the past decade:
- In 2010, the FCC adopted rules on Preserving an Open Internet. These rules were straightforward about the threat of the broadband industry’s potential to place restrictions in its favor.
- In 2011, the Senate introduced the Protect IP Act (PIPA) and Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) bills. If passed, these bills would create mass censorship and restrict competition.
- In 2012, Fight for the Future organized the largest online protest in history- an internet-wide strike against web censorship, which includes blocking of websites, instant messaging apps, Tor (anonymity service) and other circumvention tools, and detection of systems that could be responsible for censorship and/or surveillance. The SOPA and PIPA bills were defeated!
- In 2014, the US Court of Appeals rejected the FCC’s open internet rules when Verizon appealed.
- The FCC ensured Net Neutrality in 2015 by classifying broadband providers as common carriers after another strong public protest.
- In October 2016, the FCC passed privacy rules aimed at broadband providers and…
- By March 2017, Congress made it go away. Internet Service Providers do not like restrictions on mining your data for advertising.
- On December 14, 2017, Net Neutrality was denied by the FCC despite public opposition.
Despite the recent FCC ruling, change has not become apparent yet because powerful telecom companies have been lobbying for their pet legislation and donating to your legislators. The lobbyists push state laws to ensure that big telecom companies control the internet. Big telecom wants their paid legislators to be re-elected, so drastic actions are not likely to be taken until after the mid-term elections.
Net Neutrality Needs You…It Can Be Saved!
It’s important that we protect our basic rights and freedoms by demanding that technology and policy serve the People. The Congressional Review Act (CRA) has the power to undo the FCC’s repeal of Net Neutrality. If you want to help save Net Neutrality, call and/or write all members of Congress asking them to pass a “Resolution of Disapproval” to overturn the FCC vote. There are 60 days from the date the rule was passed (December 14) to reject it, so we have until February 12 to overturn this vote! Visit Battle for the Net website for more info and ideas.
If mass outcry against the FCC’s attack on Net Neutrality does not convince Congress to pass a “Resolution of Disapproval,” there is more to do. Support the resistance and donate to the Net Neutrality organizations listed below. Call for NYS to sue over the repeal. Support legislators who vote for an open internet, call out those who don’t, and get out the vote!
Free Press Action Fund filed a lawsuit against the FCC, claiming that the broadband market didn’t change enough in the last two years to warrant an FCC reversal of rules. FCC lawyers will have to prove that it did and explain why the FCC ignored millions of consumers who supported the rules, and the fraud and identity theft that occurred during the repeal’s public comment period. If you find a fraudulent comment in the FCC’s Net Neutrality docket under your name and address, report it to Attorney General Schneiderman.
There is a new tool that open internet activists created for users to test their internet connections and catch ISPs censoring or throttling. Visit the Open Observatory of Network Interference if you are interested in using the tool to help with the project.
A Final Word to the Wise; Beware of Fake Net Neutrality
Comcast, Verizon, AT&T, representatives, and senators who profess to support Net Neutrality want us to think that regulation leads to stifled innovation and additional taxes, because they stand to profit from our acceptance of that.
The same ISPs that pushed for the FCC to kill Net Neutrality are currently lobbying for a “legislative solution” in Congress under the guise of “Net Neutrality” that would create a law impotent to enforce Net Neutrality and would also prevent the FCC from creating effective laws in the future. The lawyers of the big telecom companies that make fat contributions to your legislators will be writing this law. It would likely give the impression of Net Neutrality by banning the most obvious violations that ISPs can’t get away with anyway while overlooking the actual violations happening now, like Comcast’s arbitrary and unnecessary usage caps and overage fees or ISPs deliberate congestion of peering points (the practice of large networks or content companies that agree to share traffic between networks at various interconnection points) in order to drive up costs for content and transit companies.
Beware the Open Internet Preservation Act. It sounds friendly and familiar, but it would change the fundamental structure of the internet. Small businesses and users would be forced to pay fees and there would be ‘fast’ and ‘slow’ lanes. This would inhibit expression, creativity, and innovation on the internet.
Visit These Sites to Learn More and Support Net Neutrality:
PDF’s linked in article:
Cyberspace’s Architectural Constitution, Lawrence Lessig, 1999.
No. 15-1063 UNITED STATES TELECOM ASSOCIATION, ET AL., PETITIONERS v. FEDERAL COMMUNICATIONS COMMISSION AND UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, RESPONDENTSINDEPENDENT TELEPHONE &TELECOMMUNICATIONS ALLIANCE, ET AL., INTERVENORS,
In the Matter of Protecting and Promoting the Open Internet, GN Docket No. 14-28, 2015.
Network Neutrality, Broadband Discrimination, Tim Wu, 2003. (not pdf, slow link)
Report of the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, Frank La Rue, 2011.
In the Matter of Preserving the Open Internet Broadband Industry Practice, FCC, 2010.
FCC FACILITATES REVIEW OF RESTORING INTERNET FREEDOM RECORD WC Docket No. 17-108, November 7, 2017.