Donald Trump's Federal Communications Commission voted in mid-December to eliminate “the First Amendment of the internet,” and in so doing it delivered the most brutal blow of 2017 to democracy in America.
Despite overwhelming public support for a free and open internet, the FCC’s Trump-aligned majority engineered a 3-2 vote to overturn net neutrality rules, which have required internet service providers to treat all online communications equally — and, in a related move, the commission majority rejected the authority of the FCC to protect a free and open internet. Commission Chair Ajit Pai, the telecommunications industry lawyer who has done Trump’s bidding in debates on a host of media and democracy issues, has cleared the way for service providers to establish information superhighways for political and corporate elites, while consigning communications from grass-roots activists to digital dirt roads.
Addressing the American people on the day when the FCC dismissed millions of appeals on behalf of net neutrality, dissenting Commissioner Mignon Clyburn said Dec. 14: “What saddens me is that the agency that is supposed to protect you is abandoning you.”
Pai and his associates have moved to create what former FCC Commissioner Michael Copps refers to as “a gatekeeper’s paradise,” where “our civic dialogue — the news and information upon which a successful self-governing society depends — would be further eroded.”
“Telecom and media consolidation have wreaked havoc with investigative journalism and turned political campaigns into a crass reality show and our ‘news’ into bottom-feeding infotainment,” warned Copps, who now works with Common Cause on media and democracy issues. "I don’t believe democracy can survive on such thin gruel. Throw in (the fact) that we, the people, will be paying ever-more exorbitant prices for this constricted future and you will understand why so many millions of people all across the land have contacted the FCC and Congress telling them to preserve our current net neutrality rules."
Much of the debate about overturning net neutrality has been focused on the damage the move will do to consumers. Wisconsin Sen. Tammy Baldwin is right to say: “Rolling back net neutrality rules will allow internet service providers to create an uneven playing field in the online marketplace for services and ideas."
But the biggest cost of eliminating net neutrality will be to the American experiment in citizen-driven dialogue, discourse, and decision-making. Congressman Mark Pocan, D-town of Vermont, warned that, without net neutrality, elites will be able to “rig the internet" in their favor — and against the dissenting voices that challenge the powerful.
That concern was echoed by activists who rallied Dec. 14 outside the FCC headquarters. “You don’t have the modern day anti-police-violence movement without the open internet,” said editor and cultural critic Jamilah Lemieux. “Saving the net is a civil rights issue that effects Asian Americans across the U.S.,” said Deepa Iyer, a senior fellow with the Center for Social Inclusion. Symone Sanders, who served as press secretary for the 2016 Bernie Sanders presidential campaign and is now a CNN commentator, said: “There is no resistance without a free and open internet.”
This is why the FCC's 3-2 vote cannot be the end of it.
Net neutrality’s defenders will fight on in Congress, in the courts and at the ballot box to overturn this wrongheaded decision. Groups associated with the Voices for Internet Freedom Coalition — led by the Center for Media Justice, Color of Change, Free Press Action Fund, the National Hispanic Media Coalition, and 18 Million Rising — intend to fight on for net neutrality with legislative and legal strategies.
They have reason to be confident.
Past legal victories tell us that wrongheaded decisions by the FCC can be blocked and overturned. “Let me be clear: Ajit Pai will not have the last word on net neutrality,” said Free Press President Craig Aaron.
Free Press intends to sue the FCC on the basis of its broken process, deeply flawed legal reasoning, willful rejection of evidence that contradicts its preordained conclusions, and absolute disregard for public input. It will have a very strong case in court.
State attorneys general will also be suing. California, New York and Washington have all announced plans to sue — and New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said he expects that many more states will join the initiative.
Legal observers say as many as 18 states could sue. In addition to the chief law enforcement officers of California, New York and Washington, the attorneys general of 15 additional states signed a recent letter urging the FCC to delay the net neutrality vote: Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont and Virginia. “While not all of us may agree on any given policy, we stand together today as prosecutors of fraud and as defenders of the democratic process,” that letter concluded. “It is essential that the commission gets a full and accurate picture of how changes to net neutrality will affect the everyday lives of Americans before they can act on such sweeping policy changes.”
Dissenting FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, is encouraging just such resistance.
“I’m not going to give up — and neither should you,” said Rosenworcel. "If the arc of history is long, we are going to bend this toward a more just outcome. In the courts. In Congress. Wherever we need to go to ensure that net neutrality stays the law of the land. Because if you are conservative or progressive, you benefit from internet openness. If you come from a small town or big city, you benefit from internet openness. If you are a company or nonprofit, you benefit from internet openness. If you are a start-up or an established business, you benefit from internet openness. If you are a consumer or a creator, you benefit from internet openness. If you believe in democracy, you benefit from internet openness."
On a disappointing day for the defenders of democracy, the commissioner concluded by assuring them that this struggle is far from finished.
“So let’s persist. Let’s fight. Let’s not stop here or now,” declared Rosenworcel. “It’s too important. The future depends on it.”
John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. firstname.lastname@example.org and @NicholsUprising
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