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Save us, Congress. You're now net neutrality's only hope

By The Fresno Bee staff (TNS) • Dec 19, 2017 at 12:00 PM

Often, the mob mentality of the internet can change minds. But not this time.

On Thursday, the Federal Communications Commission did exactly what it had been expected to do for weeks: It pushed through a repeal of net neutrality, the Obama-era regulations that prohibited internet service providers from blocking, slowing or giving preferential treatment to certain websites and services. No longer will the web be treated like a utility.

Suddenly, things aren’t looking good for broadband customers and California’s tech companies, which soon could be forced to pay more money to keep using the internet as we do today. Streaming Netflix may never be the same.

And the next Netflix or the next Twitter, whatever that startup running on a shoestring budget might be, could fail before it has a chance to succeed in an environment that requires entrepreneurs to pay to be seen on the internet.

Depressing, right?

Even more depressing is that, at this point, consumers only have one place to turn to undo the damage wrought by the FCC, and that’s Congress. The same Republican-controlled Congress that’s determined to snatch money from the pockets of California’s middle-class under it’s monstrosity of a tax plan.

But pressuring lawmakers into action on net neutrality is certainly worth a shot, even though it clearly didn’t work so well with the FCC.

In a letter sent last week, the powerful Internet Association – a trade group that counts Facebook, Google, Airbnb and Uber, among others, as members – urged the FCC to reject the misguidedly named “Restoring Internet Freedom Order.” And this week, Twitter and Reddit followed up with a coordinated campaign of hashtags and pointed online messages aimed at riling up the public.

That’s on top of a letter from more than 20 technology pioneers, including Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak and Mozilla Foundation chairwoman Mitchell Baker, who beseeched the FCC to slow down and gain a better understanding of the way the internet works, and the 28 Democratic senators who also asked for a delay.

But alas, the Republican members of the FCC caved to the thinking of Chairman Ajit Pai.

Pai came to the FCC after working as an attorney for Verizon, a telecommunications company that stands to gain handsomely from the net neutrality repeal. He insisted that the regulations hampered innovation and investment in next-generation broadband technologies, such as the 5G wireless network being rolled out in Sacramento next year.

Instead of net neutrality, Pai has made unrealistic promises to protect consumers by working with the Federal Trade Commission to ensure ISPs disclose their business practices. Specifically, the FTC – assuming it has jurisdiction over ISPs, which remains unclear – will handle investigations and enforcement for “unfair, deceptive or otherwise unlawful acts or practices,” but only after the damage has already been done.

The chance of Pai’s plan actually working is, amazingly, even more of a longshot than getting Congress to pass legislation to restore some or all the previous net neutrality regulations.

This week, Republican Sen. John Thune broke with the deafening silence his party has had on the issue and asked that people on “both sides of the aisle” work with him on a legislative solution.

“Congressional action is the only way to solve the endless back and forth on net neutrality rules that we’ve seen over the past several years,” he said. “If my colleagues on the other side of the aisle and those who claim to support net neutrality rules want to enshrine protections for consumers with the backing of the law, I call on you today to join me in discussing legislation that would do just that.”

And on Thursday morning, Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Angus King, an independent also from Maine, asked the FCC to cancel Thursday’s vote to give Congress time to hold public hearings.

Separately, Democratic Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney of New York introduced the “Save Net Neutrality Act,” which would’ve stopped the FCC from gutting net neutrality in the first place. It went nowhere, but other Democrats in Congress, including Sen. Kamala Harris, have ramped up calls for saving the regulations in the interest of protecting a vital communications tool.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi went so far as to say after the vote that “if Republicans in Congress decide to ignore the will of their constituents, Democrats will turn to the courts.”

President Donald Trump, who on Thursday made a show of cutting red “tape” while standing in front of a stack of papers to demonstrate how many regulations his administration has supposedly cut, won’t make it easy.

But the internet is too important to California and, indeed, to the world to let profit-minded corporations be the sole gatekeepers. It’s a pity the FCC allowed that to happen.


©2017 The Fresno Bee (Fresno, Calif.)

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