Public relations pros on both sides of the net neutrality debate are earning their pay today.
This is the “Day of Action” for Silicon Valley’s mightiest powers and other supporters of the FCC’s tough net neutrality enforcement rules. Oversight is needed, they say, to ensure that cable and telco internet service providers don’t play favorites — for example by providing speedier transmissions for some content providers over others.
Amazon, eBay, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Netflix, Snap, Twitter, Uber, the Ford Foundation and the Knight Foundation are among the entities calling on people to join them in opposing FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s effort to weaken the government’s ability to protect an open internet.
“The Trump Administration’s fake net neutrality scheme is a ridiculous illustration of the price we pay for the outrageous influence of money in politics,” says former FCC Commissioner Michael Copps, now a special advisor to Common Cause. “Two years ago, millions of Americans took to the streets and to the internet to win historic open internet protections. They beat the likes of Comcast and Verizon then, and today they are mobilizing for victory again because there can be no compromising online free speech.”
This time may be different, at least for now. Few envision Pai or the Trump administration losing their enthusiasm to relax the rules by reclassifying the internet as a lightly regulated information service under Title I of the Communications Act.
“We expect a fourth quarter vote at the FCC that reclassifies broadband under Title 1 and eliminates the net neutrality rules,” says Cowen & Co analyst Paul Gallant.
But that may be a Pyrrhic victory.
If net neutrality activism spreads then it could “embolden congressional Democrats…to run in 2018 on the Republican elimination of net neutrality rules,” he adds. That could backfire on cable and phone companies “for whom passage of broadband legislation is the ultimate Washington objective — as only Congress can eliminate the risk of retail price regulation or wholesale access under a future Democratic Administration.”
Cable and phone companies leading the charge for Pai’s initiative aren’t ceding the spotlight today. They say that they support net neutrality, but not the government’s current authority to hold them accountable if they violate its principals.
“Our business practices ensure full protections for our customers and the public, and will continue to do so no matter which direction the FCC ultimately decides to go with its Open Internet regulations,” Comcast Senior EVP David Cohen says today. “The scare tactics being pursued by some groups that ISPs like Comcast will block or throttle lawful content are simply untrue.”
Net root activism prevailed in 2015 when the FCC reclassified the internet as a phone-like service under Title II of the Communications Act.
The FCC made the change after phone and cable companies challenged its previous efforts to set open internet rules. ISPs said that the regulatory agency had overstepped its authority. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia agreed, but said that the FCC would have the authority if it reclassified the internet under Title II.
ISPs led by cable and phone providers now say that they and their investors might trim spending on internet facilities with Title II enforcement — especially if they fear that the FCC will use its authority to control rates. They want Congress, now under Republican control, to establish net neutrality criteria.
“Saddling modern broadband infrastructure and investment decisions with heavy-handed, outdated telephone regulations creates an environment of market uncertainty that does little to advance internet openness,” AT&T Senrior EVP of External and Legislative Affairs Bob Quinn says. “Instead, it jeopardizes the prospects for continued innovation and robust growth we have witnessed since the internet’s creation.”
Net neutrality activists say that cable and phone companies simply want to kick the can down the road, with the latitude to do as they please.
Here’s a sampling of some of today’s arguments:
Writers Guild of America, West:
For writers the open Internet has meant the emergence of more buyers competing for scripted content and new distribution outlets that can reach audiences around the world. It is expected that in 2017 Guild members will write as many as 100 original online series. If the 2015 open Internet rules are rescinded this dynamic growth in the digital video marketplace could come to a grinding halt. Chairman Pai’s proposal is to change the classification of broadband Internet from a public utility to an information service. This will severely limit the Commission’s ability to enforce any meaningful rules that protect the open Internet and would shift control of the content and information available to consumers online into the hands of a few giant corporate gatekeepers.
The current net neutrality rules are working, they are popular, and they have been upheld in court challenges not once but twice. No one should have to pay an extra toll or get permission from their broadband provider to deliver their content or services to consumers online.
Today’s open internet ensures that both new and established services, whether offered by an established internet company like Google, a broadband provider, or a small startup, have the same ability to reach users on an equal playing field.
US Telecom CEO Jonathan Spalter:
When you log on today and see the “spinning wheel of doom,” keep in mind that some of the biggest and most dominant online companies in the world don’t need you to fight their battles for them, but they are asking anyway. For consumers and our economy, we don’t need a “day of action” on an issue where we all agree. Instead, we need another decade of progress—investment, constructive policy and more collaborative efforts to see broadband’s many benefits reach all Americans and protect the open internet we all deserve.