Congressman Mark Pocan had the right perspective on the incredibly important decision by the Federal Communications Commission to finally take the necessary steps to preserve a free and open Internet by guaranteeing net neutrality.
“This historic decision will ensure the Internet remains an open space for public good,” declared Pocan, the Madison Democrat who is a long-standing advocate for the principle of net neutrality, which says that all content on the Internet should be treated equally.
“Americans deserve an open and free Internet, not a system controlled by a handful of powerful corporations,” explained Pocan. “Net neutrality provides the necessary protections for consumers and levels the playing field for budding entrepreneurs and innovators. Universally accessible, affordable and open broadband is vital to our socioeconomic livelihood.”
If everyone in Congress had the same perspective as Pocan, Americans could rest assured that the Internet would always remain open and free.
If everyone in politics had the same perspective as Pocan, Americans could focus on realizing the full promise of the web.
Unfortunately, Pocan’s is only one perspective. Others, such as Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson, are already declaring that “the decision is wrong,” and looking for ways to undo the work of the FCC. That’s to be expected of Johnson, whose is always at the ready to carry water for corporate special interests.
The trouble is that Johnson speaks for a lot of his fellow Republicans when he decries net neutrality.
This is why we believe the activists who won the fight to get the FCC to embrace net neutrality must guard their victory.
The commission’s 3-2 vote last week has settled the issue for now. In time, however, we fear that it will rise again.
There will be no popular demand for ending net neutrality protections against the development of a two-tier Internet, where “paying” content (from multinational corporations and powerful special interests) moves on an information superhighway, while “nonpaying” content (from grass-roots groups and dissenting citizens) is diverted onto a digital dirt road.
But there will be campaign donations, lobbying and spin from telephone and cable companies that have too much at stake to give up on the fight for an end to rules that prevent them from subdividing the Internet for profit. Telecommunications conglomerates stand to make a lot more money if they can charge extra to move some communications more quickly — creating a circumstance where corporations and politicians with the right connections can pay for commercial and political advantages in the digital age.
The telecom giants cannot establish a pay-to-play Internet if the FCC enforces strict net neutrality protections. That’s why it was so vital that media reform groups, civil rights groups and community groups first made net neutrality an issue and then succeeded in building a mass movement on behalf of basing new net neutrality rules on Title II of the Communications Act — a step that would allow regulation in the public interest. That’s why it mattered so much that President Obama embraced net neutrality and urged his appointees to the FCC to do the same. And that’s why the FCC’s embrace of net neutrality is such a big deal for communications and democracy.
There is much to celebrate. In an era when corporations so frequently get so very much of what they ask for, it is both good and hopeful that a federal agency is acting on behalf of the public interest. “Today’s vote is the biggest win for the public interest in the FCC’s history,” says Free Press President Craig Aaron. “It’s the culmination of a decade of dedicated grass-roots organizing and advocacy. Millions of people came to the defense of the open Internet to tell Washington, in no uncertain terms, that the Internet belongs to all of us and not just a few greedy phone and cable companies.”
This is, in particular, a win for social and economic justice advocates, who rely on a free and open Internet to communicate and to organize. “Today the FCC has taken crucial steps toward protecting a vital tool in the fight for equality and justice,” says Rashad Robinson, executive director of ColorOfChange.org. “This victory shows that people power can sometimes triumph over corporate dollars.”
But when the celebrations are done, it will be important to recognize that this is not, necessarily, the end of the story.
There will be legal challenges, as there have been before.
And there will be political fights.
Even as the FCC was preparing to act — with three Democratic appointees voting for net neutrality and two Republican appointees voting against it — Republicans such as Johnson were busy setting up a new front in the long battle. A House Communications and Technology Subcommittee hearing was organized to provide what supporters of net neutrality properly decried as a platform for “phone and cable industry-funded spokespeople and pundits enlisted by their congressional allies to spread fear about net neutrality.”
Republicans in the House and Senate could pass anti-net neutrality legislation. But it would, in all certainty, be blocked by President Obama, who has been ardent in his support of net neutrality and who says that “companies who connect you to the world have special obligations not to exploit the monopoly they enjoy over access into and out of your home or business.”
So net neutrality is real for now. But what happens when Obama is gone? What happens with the next president and the next Congress?
There is too much at stake to presume that net neutrality is assured. It must be guarded by vigilant members of Congress such as Pocan, by activists and by every citizen who cherishes a free and open Internet.
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