The Internet’s Watershed Moment on Net Neutrality

Whether you believe we are under threat of losing the Internet as an open platform that turns a thriving economic engine or not, one thing is patently clear: The Federal Communication Commission (FCC) chief Ajit Pai is intent on repealing rules regulating the large Internet Service Providers (ISPs), and plans to let them do whatever they want to further increase their bottom line. This fight is not about Net Neutrality, but rather a battle of big Internet access providers versus consumers.

Since Pai’s ascension to FCC Chairman in January, he has systematically removed consumer protection policies and oversight over the large, powerful providers that control mass-market retail Internet access. The steady drop of the bar began in March, when Congress and President Trump repealed the FCC’s consumer privacy rules that prohibited ISPs from nonconsensual collection and sale of personal data.

In August, the FCC began chiseling away at the already low bar by changing what it means to provide a community with adequate Internet service.  Major ISPs are required by law – in exchange for their monopoly – to provide quality Internet access as part of Section 706 of the Communications Act. The FCC wants to lower standards, so ISPs don’t have to spend too much of their profits on upgrades to improve access in underserved areas.

Now we have Monday’s late night joint Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) announcement by the FCC and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to coordinate efforts to “police the internet.” Translation: They will monitor, but refrain from acting. This MOU spells out in painful and transparent detail that ISPs will – and should – be allowed to freely manipulate the public’s access to websites, apps, or any content they deem too valuable to be free or they deem a threat (to society or their bottom line).They are also allowed to collect users’ private information. All providers have to do is disclose their plans to rampage and pillage. You should be expecting the fine print in your 10-page monthly bill reflecting these ongoing changes over which you as a consumer have no say.

If the FCC adopts the new rules as expected on December 14, all other rules, including the ability to file formal complaints, will be repealed. Consumers will be able to file “informal” complaints, but the FCC will have no real authority to do anything about the subject of the complaint. While most public discussion centers on privacy protection and whether the FTC will be effective, few have mentioned the startling fact that the FTC will not be able to address complaints about harmful non-privacy related practices that have no “reasonable network management” purpose. Even if a consumer complaint demonstrates that certain harmful practices do not have a reasonable network management justification, neither the FTC nor the FCC can grant any relief from the harmful practice.

The FCC, Congress and the White House have repeatedly demonstrated their lack of commitment to American consumers. They think they can get away with it because polls show that while people broadly support the Net Neutrality rules, only 34 percent strongly support retention of the current rules. This means Internet protection is on a relatively low political tier, and D.C. thinks it can get away with sucking up to its powerful money-donor cronies. As a community, we must start taking our messages to candidates and educate the public about the need for rules that prohibit access providers from eliminating the open Internet. I have a feeling when they are on the receiving end to what all of these policies are intended to do, we may have a more receptive audience – and be sitting in a higher political tier.

Carlos Espinosa

Carlos manages Golden Frog's government affairs on the local, state, national and international levels to educate and influence policy around privacy, encryption and the open Internet. He has served in government affairs for over 20 years.

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