The Battle to Restore Net Neutrality is On

Posted Dec. 20, 2017

MP3 Interview with Victor Pickard, associate professor of communication at the University of Pennsylvania, conducted by Scott Harris

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As expected, the Federal Communications Commission voted along party lines on Dec. 14 to repeal the nation’s net neutrality rules. Those rules, since their ratification in 2015, had prevented Internet Service Providers like AT&T, Comcast and Verizon from engaging in censorship, or controlling what consumers see and do on the web by slowing down or denying access to specific websites, apps, and other online services. The absence of regulation under net neutrality will now allow broadband providers to charge customers for paid prioritization, which could transform the Internet into something that looks more like cable television, where consumers would be charged additional fees to gain access to certain websites at faster speeds.

Before the FCC voted to eliminate net neutrality, nationwide protests were organized on Dec. 7, where activists demanded that members of Congress take action to stop Trump’s FCC from eliminating net neutrality protections. Now, after the vote, public interest groups and state attorneys generals are preparing lawsuits pushing for the restoration of net neutrality rules. And a campaign is gearing up to pressure Congress to overturn the FCC vote by passing a "resolution of disapproval" that would undo the FCC's dismantling of net neutrality rules.

Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Victor Pickard, associate professor of communication at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. Here, Pickard examines how the repeal of net neutrality rules endangers Internet freedom and the difficult fight ahead to restore net neutrality protections.

VICTOR PICKARD: Well, I think it's going to affect us quite dramatically. It may seem subtle at first, but what the FCC essentially did was entirely throw out the net neutrality protections that were put in place in 2015. But these protections prevented our Internet service providers – like Verizon and Comcast – from interfering with our online content. From slowing it down, blocking it or setting up fast and slow lanes where they prioritize certain kinds of content over others and force content creators to pay up. This is radically changing the underlying logic of the Internet. Without sounding too melodramatic, it really is a blow to democracy.

It's going to affect us in economic ways. It'll affect us as consumers of the Internet, but I think most important, it's really going affect the way that we can express ourselves creatively and politically online. So I don't think we can really exaggerate how profound of a change that will be if this goes through. At least, initially, it will go through in January.

BETWEEN THE LINES: So, Victor, who are the big beneficiaries of this repeal of net neutrality? Who are the ones making the phone calls and visiting the offices of FCC commissioners and taking FCC Chairman Ajit Pai out to lunch to push for these changes?

VICTOR PICKARD: Yes, part of the question we can only speculate, although I am sure some of it is in the public record. But certainly, by all appearances, Ajit Pai is doing the work of these telecommunication companies and really, no matter how you look at this, the only beneficiaries of losing net neutrality are those Internet service monopolies like Verizon and Comcast. And of course, Ajit Pai used to work for Verizon. Some people suggest he thinks that he still does, even as FCC chair.

But one way of describing this – it sounds like a very academic concept, but it's pretty straightforward – which is this idea of regulatory capture. And that's when you have a regulatory agency like the FCC that begins to harmonize its action. Essentially, it internalizes the logics and the value systems of the industries that it purportedly regulates. And I think what we see with the FCC today is a textbook case of regulatory capture. Not just with net neutrality, but almost every decision they've made in the last 10 months has been a long-standing wish for either telecommunication companies, or broadcast companies.

So it really does seem like the FCC is just doing customer service for these industries.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Just a question about Congress. You can give us your own view on where a lawsuit might take this fight. But maybe a more realistic approach is trying to get your Congress to overturn this repeal, given that there is bipartisan support for net neutrality. Do you have any feelings about where this may go? Is the House and Senate leadership diametrically opposed to net neutrality or is there some opening there, you think where enough public pressure could create results?

VICTOR PICKARD: I think there is an opening. And I do think that's probably the most immediate thing that we, as engaged citizens, can really get involved – is to try to call our members of Congress because it might be a pretty big hill to climb to get enough votes to pass this Congressional Review Act, but it's certainly worth a shot. And I think it goes without saying, that the more pressure that we apply now, the more momentum we get on this. It's only going to help in the long run.

I think it's also putting members of Congress on notice that voters are going to remember this in a short 11 or so months away in the midterm election. People are going to be voting on these kinds of issues and you even saw some Republican members towards the end, getting close to the FCC decision who wrote letters, signed letters, saying the FCC decision should delay the vote or even decide to keep net neutrality.

So we started to see a bit of some "sway" on this and I do think if the public maintains pressure, we can see real dividends. Even, again if we don't ultimately succeed, this is going to be a long-term struggle. And I would actually say with the courts, I've heard some very smart people, people who know our legal system and the law much better than I do, who say we have at least 50-50 odds in the courts. I think we have a good shot with the courts, as well.

I'm always pleasantly surprised that even though, again, it sounds so "wonky" when you say net neutrality, but people get it within seconds of the conversation. I mean, I think, probably a better of framing it and describing it is calling it "This is all about the 'open Internet'. But this ongoing fight about net neutrality is as important as it is.

It also underscores the need for creating truly public alternatives. This idea we can't just rely on these commercial providers and that we should be taking at least sectors of the Internet out of the market. We should try to create these public structural alternatives like community or municipal-owned and operated broadband networks so that we're not constantly fighting with these Internet monopolies. I think that's something, that's an exciting area that I'm actually optimistic about, although that's also going to be a huge fight in the coming years.

For more information visit Victor Pickard’s website at victorpickard.com; Free Press at freepress.net; Center for Media Justice at centerformediajustice.org.

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