BY ISABELLA LORD
Before his appointment as Federal Communications Committee (FCC) chair, Chairman Ajit Pai worked as an attorney for Verizon. Early in his leadership, he vowed to dismantle net neutrality, claiming it “stalls innovation.” What he really meant was that neutrality stalls corporate cash flow. While Republicans who oppose net neutrality claim restoration of the “free market” will benefit consumers, the truth is that a sensible amount of regulation is necessary for consumer choice. Net neutrality qualified the internet as a utility. It was not to be limited nor disrupted, allowing every web page and every company an equal chance to reach consumers. Net neutrality outlawed blocking, throttling, and paid prioritization, which prevented the purposeful blocking or slowing down of legal internet content, and prevented paid prioritization from creating an internet “fast lane” for companies willing to pay for it.
Repealing net neutrality will be a disaster for the small businesses, free speech, and creativity so crucial to American society. To convince Americans that repealing neutrality was in their favor, Pai made a trite, insulting, horrendously edited PSA called “7 Things You Can Still Do On the Internet Without Net Neutrality.” In this video, he treated the internet like a playground and not as a basic human right. Self-assured politicians often expect Americans to be unresponsive to important issues but, in the case of net neutrality, they could not have been more wrong. The outrage caused by net neutrality’s repeal, and the rallying in the weeks leading up to it, was incredible. Ironically, it demonstrated the power of the internet. Of the Americans who expressed grievances about net neutrality, analysts estimate that 95 percent of them did so through online petitions, Youtube, Twitter, and other internet-based platforms. However, most people knew net neutrality was bound to be repealed because it was left up to the FCC to decide. Pai even mocked the backlash leading up to the vote, coldly reminding us that though we are free to express our anger with the government, our freedom stops there.
The repeal of net neutrality speaks to a horrendous flaw in the United States government. Too many important political matters are left to appointed positions. Bureaucracy runs deep, and there is little in the Constitution to regulate it. Only one-third of the country believes the government provides competent service to its citizens. The majority of citizens believe the government wastes over half of its tax dollars. Ironically, one of the regulations laid out in the same bill that implemented net neutrality led to its downfall. In 2015, the internet was officially qualified as a “utility” in accordance with Article II of the Communications Act. This put internet regulations under full discretion of the FCC.
Fortunately, many states are recognizing the FCC’s decision for the atrocity that it is and are passing bills to restore net neutrality. California approved its own bill in the Senate last week. Many hope others will follow the Golden State’s lead, and companies may have to. “California has a long and questionable history of passing laws and regulations that end up applying to the whole country, because companies don’t want to or can’t change their products to sell them just in California,” says Geoffrey Manne, executive director of the International Center for Law & Economics.
This trend of state legislation combating federal law points to yet another serious problem with the American government: the conflict between state and federal law. When the FCC dismantled net neutrality, they also stripped states of the right to pass their own internet laws. A preemptive law preventing state government action is at Congress’s discretion, not the FCC’s, and states are passing laws that contradict with the FCC’s ruling. States are not explicitly reenacting net neutrality, as it is not within their power to do so. What state governments can do, however, is pass laws requiring state officials to only purchase broadband internet from Internet Service Providers (ISPs) who do not practice blocking, throttling, and paid prioritization. Such laws will essentially restore net neutrality. Of course, there is the possibility that internet companies will simply refuse, and that states will be left without internet service unless they comply. But many are optimistic about these bills. The current list of the states who have passed net neutrality bills is expansive, including California, New York, New Jersey, Washington, Hawaii, and Montana.
The main problem with these bills, however, is the issue of interstate commerce. Companies like Verizon do not currently provide different services to different states. While there may be a future in which blocking, throttling, and paid prioritization are legal in Alabama, but illegal in California, this will complicate internet standards, especially for the providers. Of course, we would not have to worry about this complication if net neutrality were left in place, but the FCC and large internet companies must reap what they have sown. The bureaucratic overreach of these small committees has gone on for far too long, and it is time for states to make their own decisions. The uproar in early December was not enough to sway the FCC in favor of our rights, but perhaps the upcoming legal battles with the blue states will be. No matter the outcome, it is clear that the fight for net neutrality is far from over.