Activism

We Won on Net Neutrality! FCC Designates Internet as a Public Utility

Years of activism and mobilization overcome telecom monopolies.

Photo Credit: Image by Shutterstock, Copyright (c) Subbotina Anna

The Federal Communications Commission made history today by legally reclassifying the Internet as a public utility.

Its action prohibits a shrinking number of companies providing the speediest service to create fast and slow lanes—in essence, having monopoly-like control over the growing online economy.

The FCC’s vote on “net neutrality” came after a years-long push by progressive organizers, who rallied online activists across the country, and a handful of content providers who said their growing businesses were at risk under the status quo.

“Big telecom just lost – and it lost because millions of grassroots activists spoke out for net neutrality,” said Becky Bond, Political Director and Vice President of CREDO Mobile, a phone company that has raised more than $78 million for progressive groups including the ACLU, Planned Parenthood, Electronic Frontier Foundation, and Color of Change. “Today’s vote marks the culmination of over a decade of organizing to protect the Internet from corporate takeover.”  

“Republicans in Congress will no doubt spend years trying to roll back the progress we made today,” she continued. “But today’s vote makes clear that telecom giants and their allies in Congress should expect fierce and overwhelming resistance when they attack the open Internet.”

The FCC’s vote is another progressive victory under the Obama administration, which, until recently, has underwhelmed activists on the left. It follows the White House veto of the Keystone XL pipeline, and executive orders to protect more than 4 million undocumented immigrants from deportation. In all those cases, Republicans in Congress have vowed to fight and reverse Obama’s actions.

The net neutrality fight is no different. In recent days on Capitol Hill, Republicans tried to intimidate the FCC from issuing the new net neutrality rules, accusing the FCC of every imaginable capitalist sin, and saying this fight will continue in court or would be reversed the next time the FCC has a majority of GOP appointees.

At a House hearing Wednesday, the FCC’s new rules were called “Obamacare for the Internet.” A parade of witnesses, mostly from the biggest telecoms that now control most high-speed service, claimed the new FCC rules would lead to Internet taxes, slower investment, hurt expansion of broadband overseas and even encourage censorship and quash First Amendment expression.

“This overheated rhetoric can’t withstand scrutiny, and bears no resemblance to the law and the facts,” said Free Press policy director Matt Wood. “Title II [the law designating the Internet as a public utility] isn’t Internet regulation or ‘Obamacare for the Internet,’ and it won't turn the Internet into a weapon of mass destruction. Big cable and telecom companies have paid their lobbyists and public relations firms to deceive the public with these claims. But the public isn’t buying it. That’s why millions of people have urged the FCC to make strong rules and protect our rights to connect and communicate online.”

The joint efforts of many progressive groups—such the ACLU, CREDO Action, Common Cause, Free Press, MoveOn, the National Organization for Women, Center for Media Justice, and many others—and Internet companies such as Netflix, Twitter and Mozilla, created a persuasive coalition of customers and users. While Internet providers offer an array of plans with different speeds and components, the fastest service providers were increasingly gaining monopoly control, a New York Times analysis said Thursday.

“For genuine high-speed Internet service most American households now have only one choice, and most often it is a cable company,” the Times said. “The new rules will not ensure competition from new entrants, ranging from next-generation wireless technology to ultrahigh-speed networks built by municipalities. Instead, strong regulation is intended to prevent the dominant broadband suppliers from abusing their market power.”    

The fact that a coalition of concerned customers and content providers could overcome the telecom lobby and their GOP apologists in Congress is noteworthy. It suggests that the ability to wield big money and platoons of lobbyists is not an unstoppable force in Congress.

“We don’t have an army of lobbyists to deploy. We don’t have financial resources to throw around,” Lisa Rubenstein, Tumblr’s director of social impact and public policy told the Times earlier this week. “What we do have is access to an incredibly engaged, incredibly passionate user base, and we can give the folks the tools to respond.”

 

Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America's democracy and voting rights. He is the author of several books on elections and the co-author of Who Controls Our Schools: How Billionaire-Sponsored Privatization Is Destroying Democracy and the Charter School Industry (AlterNet eBook, 2016).

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