It’s safe to say we are most of us in an era of unpredictability. Take comfort, then, in this case study in predictability, for at the very least, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has so far been everything and done everything you could expect from someone who vowed to “take a weed whacker” to the open Internet. Since his ascension, Pai’s agenda has been one of systematic rollback of consumer safeguards, one by one by one, and the latest and greatest commenced at last Thursday’s Open Meeting vote to dismantle critical net neutrality protections.
Net neutrality is the concept that you pay for Internet service and then get to use it to access whatever you want without your ISP getting to pick and choose what you do or say online. You control your experience, not Comcast or Verizon. ISPs don’t like that – they want to make money playing favorites with some services or degrading their competitors. This tends to disadvantage smaller start-ups and traditionally marginalized voices in favor of the big guys who can pay the most money for special treatment.
Acknowledging this proclivity of our beloved providers, the FCC in 2015 wrote rules saying that ISPs couldn’t abuse their control over the consumer access bottleneck, utilizing the most solid legal underpinning at their disposal, Title II. It was a big deal – innovators and the Internet were protected, consumers cheered, and the courts approved the FCC’s work in the face of ISP attacks. Now, Pai wants to take all of that away, wresting control of consumers’ and creators’ internet experience from them and giving it instead to dominant, often-noncompetitive ISPs.
Pai remarked shortly after his elevation to Chairman that “net neutrality’s days are numbered.” Chairman Pai has expressed no interest in taking the mantle of Chairman and engaging with consumers and the entire Internet community to see how the existing rules can best be applied to further the Commission’s statutory duty to promote access for all Americans. Instead, he is doggedly pursuing policies that prioritize deregulation, even at the expense of his own agency’s authority, integrity, and consumer protection bonafides. If he is successful, he will fundamentally alter the Internet, creating a system of tiered access for haves and have-nots similar to what we see in the pay-TV industry today.
Fortunately, we don’t have to stand for it. Thursday was simply the beginning of the rulemaking process, which can evolve a lot over time. In fact, this iteration of Net Neutrality proceeding (#NN2017!) has already seen millions of comments. And it’s not just you and I. Hundreds of public interest groups oppose this proceeding. Over a thousand start-ups (think: “the ‘next’ Etsy”), the Realtors Association , dozens of members of Congress (here, here, and here), the guy who invented the term “net neutrality,” even the man behind The Godfather and William Shatner all think the rules on the books are the best around. And if you care about your autonomy online, you can add your voice to the chorus, too.
So it begins this summer – the great Internet battle of our time. Here’s how it goes down:
- May 18th – This was the kickoff! The vote on Thursday May 18th commenced the period of time where consumers and businesses and innovators of every stripe can weigh in and tell the FCC to leave net neutrality alone. Tell the Commission to support the current Title II standard and abandon the attempt to dismantle it.
- July 17th: The initial comment period. If you’re not a lawyer, this date mostly matters because it’s a flashpoint – aka, expect a lot of news stories around this time.
- August 16th: The reply comment period. This is another flashpoint, but this signals that the time for weighing in is drawing to a close, so get ‘em while they’re hot!
- Mid-Fall: If the timeline above sticks, sometime around mid-October or mid-November is when the FCC majority is *aiming* to get an Order out. That said, some groups are pushing for an extension on the reply comments due date mentioned above, so that could shift this portion of the timeline a bit. Stay tuned!
- Litigation Land!: Once an Order is voted out of the Commission, anyone who wants to bring suit has to wait until it hits the Federal Register again (usually a few weeks). In this case, it’s a pretty safe bet that a bunch of folks will take the FCC to court over this, but we’re a long way from a courtroom.
HERE’S WHAT TO DO
- Tell the FCC to support the current rules and abandon this attempt to gut them. The FCC will reopen comments on the latest item in the next week or two, but there is no need to wait. Net neutrality activists have created tools to take comments and file them once the NPRM hits the books, so it’s all systems go.
- CALL CONGRESS. I cannot emphasize enough how important this is. The person who picks up the phone takes down every call they get on this issue and puts it in a memo to your member of Congress. It actually does affect their decisionmaking process – they listen to their voters’ opinions, and when they get enough pressure, they start to lean on agency heads like Chairman Pai for answers. Democracy at work!
In an era of widespread unpredictability, here we at least know where we stand and what we can do. The Trump administration and Chairman Pai are determined to eliminate consumer protections wherever possible, but the democratic process is on our side. Don’t forget: we already won. The Internet is free, open, and innovative, and continues to do its thing just swimmingly. Now is the time to speak up so it stays that way.