Donald Trump’s stances on immigration, trade and even the musical “Hamilton” have drawn scads of attention. But there’s another issue that’s flying under the radar, which could affect how the vast majority of us get news, information and our entertainment.
The issue concerns the rules governing the internet. Last year, the Federal Communications Commission put in place new rules to protect an open internet and to prevent it from becoming something like a latter-day pay TV network. Now those rules are in jeopardy, which could give Comcast and AT&T control over what you can access and view online.
The president-elect has spoken out against the commission’s Open Internet rules. The Republican Congress has already tried to undermine them. And the men Trump has named to his transition team to oversee the FCC have repeatedly written and argued against the rules.
“Expect the Trump-FCC, Congress and/or courts to overturn the FCC’s Open Internet Order one way or another, because it has nonexistent Republican support,” enthused Scott Cleland, president of Precursor, in an email newsletter. Precursor is a consultancy that essentially serves as a mouthpiece for the big telecommunications companies, including AT&T, Comcast and Verizon.
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But this is where you come in because this is not the first time that the internet’s open nature has been under threat. And the last time it was in such danger, everyday citizens made a huge difference in safeguarding it. That fact alone offers some hope.
Although the debate over the open internet rules is intensely partisan in Washington, D.C., outside the capital, those rules have broad support, said Matt Wood, policy director at Free Press, a consumer advocacy group that pushed for their passage.
Consumer advocate: bipartisan issue
“It’s not really a Republicans versus Democrats thing in much of the country,” he said. “I’m not trying to minimize the difficulty of the task, but we think we have enough popular support to push back.”
The FCC’s rules represent an attempt to formalize the principle of net neutrality, the idea that network providers should treat all data the same. The rules forbid internet service providers from blocking or slowing access to particular sites or services or speeding up access to other preferred ones.
The rules were written out of concern that as more and more types of data were transferred over the internet, broadband providers would have incentives to restrict or control their users’ access. Internet-based calling services like Ooma and MagicJack represent a direct threat to broadband providers’ phone businesses. Netflix and now Sling TV are rivals to Comcast and AT&T’s pay-TV services.
The rules put in place last year were actually the FCC’s third stab at trying to guarantee net neutrality. A federal appeals court had struck down the previous two efforts.
It was in the wake of that second ruling, which was handed down in January 2014, that things looked most dire for the open internet.
But everyday citizens like you and me stepped into the breach, submitting some 4 million comments to the FCC, the most ever for any issue before the commission. Those comments were overwhelmingly in support of the FCC reinstating the open internet rules – including the ban on fast lanes. To ensure those rules would survive another court challenge, the public also urged the commission to do something its new chairman resisted – place internet providers under a different regulatory scheme, one that would give the commission clear authority to guarantee net neutrality.
Public support helped sway FCC
Thanks to that public support, the FCC changed course and put in place the strong open internet rules people demanded. Thanks to the regulatory change, those rules were upheld by the same appeals court that shot down the previous efforts.
Now, the incoming Trump administration looks set to change course. The president-elect hasn’t said much himself about net neutrality lately. However, he did decry the strong open internet rules the FCC later put in place in a tweet in late 2014, calling them a “top-down power grab” by the Obama administration.
And if you believe the Washington truism that “personnel is policy,” Trump’s recent staff announcements give a pretty good indication of his current thinking about the rules. On Monday, he named Jeff Eisenach and Mark Jamison to head up his transition team in charge of the FCC.
Eisenach is a scholar for the American Enterprise Institute, an anti-regulation conservative think tank, who has also, as detailed by the New York Times, quietly and simultaneously served as a paid consultant for Verizon and a cellphone industry trade association. Jamison has served as a visiting fellow at AEI and heads the Public Utilities Research Center at the University of Florida’s business school. Both men have written extensively in opposition to the FCC’s net neutrality rules and FCC regulations in general.
Eisenach, in testimony at a Senate hearing, said that “net neutrality regulation cannot be justified on grounds of enhancing consumer welfare or protecting the public interest.” Meanwhile, Jamison has asserted – without any actual proof – that the new open internet rules are “backfiring,” and has called for giving broadband providers free rein to create fast lanes.
It’s pretty clear from their appointments that the Trump administration’s vision of the internet is one in which broadband providers would be given lots of leeway to control or shape what you can access, view or interact with online.
We the people have shown that we have an entirely different vision. It’s time, again, to make sure the folks in Washington know that.