Elizabeth Cady Stanton once said, “The history of the past is but one long struggle upward to equality.” It’s become increasingly clear that this struggle for equality encompasses not only the past but also our future. What began as a specialized defense tool reserved for a time of crisis has grown into a transformative force that impacts the way we work, play, shop, learn, communicate, and research. It’s no exaggeration to say that the internet has become an essential part of 21st century life as we understand it. And it is the internet’s undeniable value that makes it so vulnerable. What Ajit Pai chalks up to “hypothetical harms and hysterical prophecies of doom” many others understand as one of the most important human rights struggles of our time.
The fight for freedom of speech and freedom of equitable access are now inextricably linked. “And what would the government do once it is in control? Certainly not protect free speech as we know it here in the United States,” Pai writes, elevating profit-seeking CEOs to trusted keepers of sacred constitutional rights. Leaving a tool that shapes life for millions of Americans in the hands of for-profit corporations is at best a wildly dangerous experiment, and at worst an inarguable selling-out with far-reaching consequences for huge numbers of innocent people. The debate rages on, and with each new development, we learn more about what our collective future may look like.
Timeline of Events
On February 1, highly anticipated oral arguments regarding the December 2017 net neutrality rollback are scheduled to begin at the DC Circuit. On January 15, the FCC requested a delay in the proceedings due to the partial government shutdown. Their request was denied without comment on January 17.
In the aftermath of the December 14 net neutrality repeal, the battle rages on in court.
- City of Fort Collins becomes ISP: After Fort Collins voters indicated strong support for the measure, city council members announce their plans to build city-owned broadband infrastructure in order to “provide broadband as a public utility.”
- Net Neutrality reinstated in Montana: On January 22, Montana Governor Steve Bullock signs an executive order declaring ISPs with state government contract cannot block or charge more for faster delivery of websites. Ajit Pai would later rebuff states’ rights to interfere with the FCC ruling, telling reporters the arguments made by states are “completely baseless” and insisting that the internet is “inherently an interstate service…”
- Senate votes to overturn FCC’s net neutrality ruling: A 52-47 Senate vote (mostly along party lines) demonstrates a sharp lack of support for the FCC’s regulatory rollback. Unfortunately, this measure was largely symbolic, as the House chose not to hold an equivalent vote.
- California firefighter controversy: Firefighters battling the Mendocino Complex Fire report that Verizon Wireless throttled their data usage during the emergency response. When asked for help, “a Verizon accounts manager suggested they get an upgrade.”
- Fight for net neutrality in California: In September, California lawmakers pass broad legislation to reinstate the FCC’s 2015 net neutrality regulations. Once signed by the governor, the measure had the power to give Californians “the strongest net neutrality standards in the nation” according to one the bill’s co-writers. ISPs immediately cry foul, and the Department of Justice soon files a lawsuit after Attorney General Jeff Sessions declares that California’s bill “unlawfully imposes burdens on the Federal Government’s deregulatory approach to the Internet.” The state eventually agrees to delay enforcing the regulations until the pending federal lawsuit plays out in court.
- Vermont sued by ISPs: Following the debate over California’s net neutrality bill, groups representing four major broadband and cable providers challenge Vermont’s legislation prohibiting companies who don’t follow net neutrality guidelines from holding state contracts.
The Trump Administration’s anti-regulatory agenda begins to be implemented.
- Trump appoints Ajit Pai as FCC Chairman: Pai makes his intentions to revoke FCC net neutrality protections more than clear, stating, “The FCC will no longer be in the business of micromanaging business models and preemptively prohibiting services and applications and products that could be pro-competitive.”
- FCC Notice of Proposed Rulemaking: Pai wastes no time in moving forward with plans to gut FCC regulatory policies. On April 27, he submits proposed legislation that opens the door for “light-touch regulatory framework” that allows service providers to charge users for access to designed websites. On May 18, the Republican-controlled FCC votes to review these proposed changes.
- Net Neutrality Day of Action: On July 12, millions unite in a large online demonstration against Pai’s proposal. Major websites including Reddit, PornHub, Etsy, Change.org, Dropbox, and Pinterest display prominent messages encouraging site visitors to take a stand. Internet users participate by posting alerts on social media and writing public comments on the FCC website. This was a landmark show of dissent by the American public.
- FCC Dismantles Net Neutrality Rules: Despite public outcry, on December 14 the FCC votes 3-2 along party lines to repeal net neutrality protections. This decision reverses the 2015 Obama-era classification of broadband internet as a public utility, thereby opening the door for ISPs to interfere with internet traffic by blocking services, throttling data, and creating paid prioritization incentives. The repeal is an undeniable win for providers like AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast. Numerous groups immediately threaten legal action including multiple state attorneys, public interest groups like Public Knowledge and the National Hispanic Media Coalition, and The Internet Association, a trade group representing Google and Facebook among other tech giants.
Another eventful year in the net neutrality debate.
- United States Telecom Association v. FCC: On June 14th, the U.S. appeals court rules to uphold the FCC’s 2015 net neutrality policies, backing the definition of broadband internet access as a public utility. Netflix applauds the ruling.
- The election of Donald J. Trump: Trump’s hostility towards net neutrality caused great uncertainty after his win on November 8. Back in 2014, he’d expressed his views via Twitter: “Obama’s attack on the internet is another top down power grab. Net neutrality is the Fairness Doctrine. Will target conservative media.”
The FCC makes a second attempt to establish net neutrality by reclassifying broadband as a public utility, a response to the complications raised by Verizon. The policy forbid the obstruction or prioritization of internet traffic, passing with a 3-2 vote; Republican commissioner Ajit Pai was one of the two dissenting votes.
David Cohen, Comcast Executive VP, declares, “I would predict that in five years Comcast at least would have a usage-based billing model rolled out across its footprint.” As of this article’s publication, data caps have become reality for millions of Comcast users.
AT&T draws sharp criticism for blocking Apple’s FaceTime app from running on its mobile network “unless customers paid extra for a Mobile Shared Data plan, which mandated they also pay for unlimited voice service and text messages.” Though AT&T claimed that the move was intended to preserve limited network resources, multiple groups threated to file formal FCC complaints, and AT&T eventually caved to pressure by allowing FaceTime and other video chat apps to operate on their network.
Verizon Wireless challenges the 2010 FCC net neutrality vote in court, arguing that the FCC had not given itself regulatory authority over internet services because they were classified differently than other public communications like telephone services. Verizon ultimately wins the case.
After five years of deliberation, the FCC votes in favor of increased net neutrality protections—a key Obama campaign promise. The new regulations demand that ISPs be transparent about their methods for managing network traffic, though wireless carriers receive less regulation than ISPs under these rules. In the FCC’s statement, Commissioner Michael J. Copps warns that “To be clear, we do not anchor ourselves on what I believe to be the best legal framework. Nor have we crafted rules as strong as I would have liked.”
This was a landmark year for net neutrality, marking the arrival of two major regulatory actions and the FCC’s 2005 Internet Policy Statement, and the Madison River case.
- National Cable & Telecommunications Association v. Brand X Internet Services: The Supreme Court upholds the FCC’s 2002 ruling that broadband internet is an interstate service and therefore not subject to the same degree of regulation as telecommunication services under Title I of the Communications Act of 1934.
- FCC August 5 decision: The FCC extends this less vigorous regulatory framework to include telephone companies who provide internet services. The FCC also issues a policy statement outlining four principles. The Congressional Research Service writes: “The four principles are: (1) consumers are entitled to access the lawful internet content of their choice; (2) consumers are entitled to run applications and services of their choice (subject to the needs of law enforcement); (3) consumers are entitled to connect their choice of legal devices that do not harm the network; (4) consumers are entitled to competition among network providers, application and service providers, and content providers.” Though the principles were not written into law per se, the FCC Chairman promised that these principles would be reflected in future FCC policy decisions.
- Madison River ruling: The FCC orders ISP Madison River to stop blocking internet phone calls after the company interfered with internet phone services on its network in an attempt to protect its own landline business. Madison River was ordered to pay a $15,000 fine. This marks one of the first attempts to enforce net neutrality standards.
The term “network neutrality” is first introduced after some internet service providers (ISPs) start restricting consumer rights by outlawing private VPNs and disallowing users to install their own Wi-Fi routers. According to the Congressional Research Service, “There is no single accepted definition of ‘net neutrality.’ However, most agree that any such definition should include the general principle that owners of the networks that compose and provide access to the internet should not control how consumers lawfully use that network, and they should not be able to discriminate against content provider access to that network.”