The Fight for Net Neutrality Isn’t Over

This Real News Network interview with Craig Aaron, president of Free Press, discusses this week’s Federal Communications Commission decision to unwind net neutrality, and what comes next. Aaron suggests the fight for a free and open internet isn’t over– despite this week’s huge setback.

AARON MATÉ: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Maté. Is the internet as we know it dead? That’s the question after a major decision by the Federal Communications Commission. By a margin of three to two, the FCC voted to appeal rules that guaranteed equal access to all web content. Under net neutrality, service providers on the internet were barred from favoring a certain content with higher speeds and more visible access. With net neutrality gone, that means that what you see and how you see it on the web could very much change. Don’t write off net neutrality just yet. Those who waged the grassroots campaign to win it in the first place, are now leading an effort to save it.

Craig Aaron is president of the group Free Press, one of those groups that fought for net neutrality, and is now within the charge to protect it. Craig, welcome. What is the significance of yesterday’s vote?

CRAIG AARON: Thanks for having me. Yesterday’s vote at the Federal Communication’s Commission is significant, because it represents the first time the FCC has completely abdicated any responsibility to serve the public. The rules the FCC passed yesterday tear down strong net neutrality rules, clear protections that were instituted in 2015 during the Obama administration, and they really defang the agency all together leaving them unable to step in if and when a powerful phone or cable company decides to start interfering with the internet. It opens the door to blocking, slowing down content, creating pay-to-play fast lanes that only the biggest media companies can afford. It’s a very dangerous decision, but I do not believe it will be the last word in this fight.

AARON MATÉ: Before we get to the fight, what do you see as the most immediate implications should the repeal of net neutrality go into effect, and what it could mean for average consumers who consume web content?

CRAIG AARON: I think one of the real dangers here is how hard it is going to be for the average consumer to know what’s going on. What getting rid of these rules does is it allows phone and cable companies to start manipulating your internet experience in all kinds of ways, some of which you won’t actually be able to see, or you won’t know is happening. Maybe you’re trying to watch this show and you’re getting the spinning wheel of death, and you can’t figure it out. Is it your internet connection? Do you need to pay for faster speeds? Is something else going on? You start to notice that, all of the sudden, Fox News is coming through just fine. These are the kinds of things that we’re concerned about, as well as a whole set of deals these companies want to strike, where they offer preferential treatment to their own content, and most of these are big, multifaceted media companies, as well as those who might pay.

Suddenly, we start to change the fundamental nature of the internet. It stops looking like that free and open space where you’re in control, and starts looking a lot more like cable television, where your company pick and choose the channels for you, starts pricing out different tiers, and makes it a lot harder for independent voices to be heard, and a lot harder for new and innovative companies to compete with the big guys.

AARON MATÉ: Do you believe the internet companies when they say … They’ve offered some assurances that they’re not going to be offering tiered packages, not going to be charging people more to access things like Google and YouTube. Do you trust their assurances?

CRAIG AARON: No. I don’t trust the cable companies. These are companies, these are the most hated companies in the country for a reason. You can’t trust them to show up at your house when they say they will at 10:00 a.m., and I don’t trust their assurances that they’re not going to mess with the internet. The reason why is because when they’re talking to their own investors, when they’re talking to each other at trade shows, when they’re under oath in court, they make very clear that they do intend to discriminate. We’re already seeing them starting to scrub their pledges and their terms of service to allow fast lanes and paid prioritization.

The other reason I don’t really believe them is, if they have no intention of violating the spirit of these rules, then why are they spending millions and millions of dollars to overturn them? It just doesn’t make any sense. Clearly there are things they want to do that the public is not going to like.

AARON MATÉ: Let me put to you the reason that I hear said most often, especially by the man responsible for all this, FCC chair Ajit Pai, a former lawyer for Verizon. He says that these regulations are making it hard to do business. They’re trampling the free market, and undoing them will free up much needed capital for these companies to invest in better broadband, in better infrastructure to provide services to their customers.

CRAIG AARON: Yeah. The evidence just doesn’t support any of those claims. Since these rules were put into place, investment is up overall among cable and telecom companies. It’s also up, in a big way, in the whole internet ecosystem. It’s clear that these, and these are multibillion dollar companies that make investment decisions for a lot of reasons, but there’s zero evidence that these rules and regulations have held them back in any way. Moreover, the problem is that the way they make money in a world without net neutrality is by profiting off of scarcity. If you’re going to see someone a ticket to the fast lane, then you have to have a slow lane they’re trying to avoid. All the incentives line up for these guys to start messing with content, offering special treatment for themselves, for select corporate partners, and slowing down everybody else. It really is a zero-sum game.

In a fair system, all these companies would be doing is just building big open pipes and all of us can go out and create whatever we want and compete with everybody else. That’s the internet we should have. That’s not the internet that Comcast, Verizon and AT&T are interested in building, and Ajit Pai, unfortunately, has shown no concern for any of the evidence in the record, and he seems to be motivated ideologically to just do away with any regulations, and do whatever he can to serve the biggest companies out there no matter the cost.

AARON MATÉ: Let’s go to Ajit Pai. He was speaking yesterday before the vote at the FCC, and part of his argument was that the net neutrality rules that were imposed fix a system that was not broken.

AJIT PAI: This decision was a mistake. For one thing, there was no problem to solve. The internet wasn’t broken in 2015. We were not living in some digital dystopia. To the contrary, the internet is one thing, perhaps the only thing, in American society that we can all agree has been a stunning success.

AARON MATÉ: That’s Ajit Pai, the FCC chair, and he was saying, Craig, that these regulations, these net neutrality regulations messed with something that already was a stunning success.

CRAIG AARON: Yeah. The evidence just doesn’t support any of those claims. Net neutrality has been a part of the internet since its inception, and didn’t become an issue until under the first Bush administration … Excuse me, the second Bush administration, George W. Bush’s administration, they began moving to undo and change the rules to benefit the cable industry. We’ve been having a big political fight since 2005 over what those rules should look like. The internet has been thriving in a world in which net neutrality has been largely protected, and where we had an FCC that was usually willing to step in when they saw a problem. They lost some of those efforts in court when they were challenged by the big companies, but net neutrality has been the rules of the road for the internet forever. This idea that the 2015 decision was some break from what came before is completely false.

What the Obama administration ended up doing, and let’s be clear, Obama and the FCC only did it after immense public pressure, was to just codify those rules and just build in all those expectations that people had, and make sure that the FCC actually had the authority to step in when there was a problem. That’s what was in dispute. Not whether we should have net neutrality, but whether the FCC could do anything about it when these companies started acting badly. What Ajit Pai is saying is, we’re not going to do anything about it anymore, and that’s the change here.

AARON MATÉ: Right. Interestingly, the open internet rules were inactive in 2015. Since then, they’ve been challenged in court. Several courts have upheld them.

CRAIG AARON: That’s right.

AARON MATÉ: I’m wondering if that sets a precedence now for the legal challenge that will follow that FCC repeal yesterday?

CRAIG AARON: Yeah. I think it does, and that’s important history. Ever since the net neutrality was thrown in jeopardy by a Supreme Court decision in 2005, there have been a series of court fights every time the FCC has tried to go forward with a half measure, or pretend its authority exists in some other part of the law, the courts have rejected the FCC’s rules. When they finally passed strong and clear rules, resting on clear authority, something called Title 2 of the Communications Act, the courts upheld that decision. They’ve actually done it twice so far. That’s a case that could go to the Supreme Court still, but that’s the first time the rules were ever upheld.

Now you have Ajit Pai coming in, and the thing is, when it comes to administrative law, it’s not enough to say that Donald Trump is president and we want to trash everything. You actually have to build a legal case. You actually have to present evidence that there was a reason to change these rules. You actually have to show that the public interest is being served somehow by this decision. I don’t think Ajit Pai can do that. We’re certainly preparing our lawsuit right now. We’ll be filing it in the next couple of weeks, to challenge these rules in court. I’m sure we won’t be alone. I expect this will go to federal court sometime next year, a challenge, and I think it’s a challenge we can win.

AARON MATÉ: One more clip of Ajit Pai making that case for why it is in the public interest to change the rules.

AJIT PAI: What is responsible for the phenomenal development of the internet? It certainly wasn’t heavy-handed government regulation. Quite to the contrary. At the dawn of the commercial internet, president Clinton and a Republican Congress agreed that it would be the policy of the United States to, and I quote, “preserve the vibrant and competitive free market that presently exists for the internet unfettered by federal and state regulation.” This bipartisan policy worked.

AARON MATÉ: That’s Ajit Pai, the chair of the FCC, speaking for the vote to repeal net neutrality. Craig, what I found interesting here was he says that what has has been responsible for the boom of the internet has not been government regulation, and he suggested that it was all about encouraging the free market. What he left out is that the internet was created with public funding, which to me, then, would lend credence to the view that the internet should be regulated and distributed in the service and the interest of the public.

CRAIG AARON: Yeah. And that’s just the start of the things he left out. He likes to talk about these Clinton era of bipartisanship, but what happened during that era was they passed a bill in 1996 that updated the Communications Act, and of course, that contains Title 2of the Communications Act, the thing he’s trying to strip. So that very legislation is what set out the legal structure that we’re trying to protect. It’s very clear if you look at that legislative history, if you look at how the internet actually developed, it was because we had a neutral network, that knew competitors could emerge.

Whether it’s Google in a garage, or Facebook in a dorm room, they could only succeed initially because they could get on that internet that was an even playing field. That’s why the companies that care most about something like net neutrality aren’t the big guys who can afford to buy themselves out now. It’s the upstarts, it’s the little guys, it’s the independent content producers, it’s the independent musicians, because they know that that’s their only chance. Otherwise, you have to go and beg AT&T, or Comcast or Verizon for permission for a spot on their network, for a spot in their fast lane, for their permission to innovate.

That’s not the internet we want. That’s not what created the internet we have, and Ajit Pai can pretend otherwise, but it simply flies in the face of all available evidence, and anything the public wants. There has never been an issue gotten more attention or more public opposition than what Ajit Pai is trying to do right now at the FCC. He is choosing to ignore it, but there are a lot of other politicians out there, politicians who need to run for office, who may take a different view.

AARON MATÉ: Speaking of public opposition, Craig, as we wrap, talk about the protest that we’ve seen around this FCC repeal vote and what you expect to see going forward.

CRAIG AARON: It’s been absolutely incredible. The last three weeks has been nothing like we’ve seen before. We have seen a huge groundswell of opposition. There were 22 million comments filed at the FCC. That’s more than any other issue, ever. There have been a million calls to Congress, just in the last few weeks. Some offices are telling us that’s more calls than they’re getting on taxes. They’re running 6,000 to 1 against Ajit Pai. We saw protests erupting everywhere. There were 700 protests in all 50 states last week. There were hundreds of people outside of the FCC on multiple days, this week, including yesterday, a huge protest of racial justice activists around the issue of net neutrality. So the public is speaking out. Politicians are starting to get that message and see that this is becoming a truly potent issue. That’s why I’m actually so confident that Ajit Pai isn’t going to prevail here. There’s going to be a fight in court. There’s going to be a fight in Congress too. We’re pushing Congress right now to throw out these rules. They have the power to do so, and we’ll be going in 2018 to get them to just toss out what this FCC has done. There are already, I think, 20 senators now who’ve agreed to support that legislation. And I expect to see a lot more in the days ahead.

AARON MATÉ: I think 2018 is the key date because right now, with the Republicans controlling Congress, that’s unlikely, but that could change in 2018.

CRAIG AARON: I think that’s right, we’re seeing Republicans move. So there’s a reason for optimism.

AARON MATÉ: Craig Aaron, president of Free Press. Thank you.CRAIG AARON: Thanks a lot.

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  1. rocket j squirrel

    The good thing about all of this is that Google, Amazon, Netflix, etc aren’t going to get the equivalent of a subsidy anymore. They want to use huge amounts of bandwidth then its got to be paid for. If the internet is a ‘utility’ then the more you use, the more you pay.

    1. Kurtismayfield

      They do pay for it. They pay for their connection from their data centers. You pay for your connection so that you receive whatever you request. What the ISP’s want is for Google, Netflix, etc. to pay them at the point of delivery. This is akin to the T1 line that Netflix pays for charging for picking up the packets, and the ISP that already agreed to deliver anything the customer asks for try to charge Netflix for dropping off the packets.. the ones that they already paid the T1 to deliver.

      Why should the ISP get to charge two different people for the same packets?? Imagine if they tried this for email for your business. You pay a company for connection, the customer opens the email, and the customer’s ISP tries to charge you for delivery.

      1. Carolinian

        Sounds like you are saying that once Netflix pays for that T1 line it’s smooth sailing to the end user and ISP claims of bandwidth constraints are bogus. But if that’s true then how is “paid prioritization” even an issue? It should be noted that in the past it has been Netflix, not the ISPs, that intitiated discussion about prioritization because their customers were complaining about slow streaming. Here’s the other side of the story

        Data traffic from mobile devices is increasing by an estimated 53% per year—most of which will end up going through mobile-phone towers, or ‘base stations’, whose coverage is already spotty, and whose bandwidth has to be shared by thousands of users.

        The quality is spotty, as well. First-generation mobile-phone networks, introduced in the 1980s, used analogue signals and are long gone. But second-generation (2G) networks, which added digital services such as texting in the early 1990s, still account for 75% of mobile subscriptions in Africa and the Middle East, and are only now being phased out elsewhere. As of last year, the majority of mobile-phone users in Western Europe were on 3G networks, which were launched in the late 1990s to allow for more sophisticated digital services such as Internet access.

        The most advanced commercial networks are now on 4G, which was introduced in the late 2000s to provide smartphones with broadband speeds of up to 100 megabits per second, and is now spreading fast. But to meet demand expected by the 2020s, say industry experts, wireless providers will have to start deploying fifth-generation (5G) technology that is at least 100 times faster, with top speeds measured in tens of billions of bits per second.

        The 5G signals will also need to be shared much more widely than is currently feasible, says Rahim Tafazolli, head of the Institute for Communication Systems at the University of Surrey in Guildford, UK. “The target is how can we support a million devices per square kilometre,” he says—enough to accommodate a burgeoning ‘Internet of Things’ that will range from networked household appliances to energy-control and medical-monitoring systems, and autonomous vehicles.

        The above doesn’t weaken the case for Net Neutrality but instead strengthens it. Our world runs on the internet.

        1. Joel

          Kurtis is absolutely right.

          The point is that you, the customer, are already paying for Netflix, Youtube or whatever, when you paid your ISP bill. If you bought a plan with 20MB/s down, it’s your choice what those 20 MB contain.

          If the ISP wants to control usage, it can charge more for those 20 MB until people buy lower plans or transparently throttle all traffic over 10MB/s down at peak usage times.

          What it cannot do is abuse its monopoly position to make money coming and going, charging a kickback to certain companies so that independent video producers and apps can’t compete with Netflix, Youtube, etc.,

          It’s the same way many bars demand a kickback from distributors so that the beers on tap don’t just reflect the preferences of customers…classic market distortion.

          1. Carolinian

            Why do you assume ISPs are working for Netflix? In fact it is Netflix that is the disrupter by soaking up a substantial chunk of all internet bandwidth. Sure there’s plenty of dark fiber but if you will read my link you will see that last mile delivery–particularly for mobile–is not cheap.

            And yes people that are not Netflix fans should get cheaper rates and not have to subsidize this infrastructure which is why–IMO–the delivery system should be subject to far more regulation, not less. Which would also mean we should consider whether turning the web into a video platform doesn’t itself threaten better and higher uses. Maybe that’s not true, but argumens that ISPs alone are the problem are disingenuous. Caitlin Johnstone said this in an NC link the other day. We can be for net neutrality while still conceding that there are arguments for the other side.

            1. Kurtismayfield

              Why do you assume ISPs are working for Netflix? In fact it is Netflix that is the disrupter by soaking up a substantial chunk of all internet bandwidth.

              The ISP’s work for themselves. They do not want to get rid of video streaming, they want control of it. They all offer their own streaming, and have even set up Hulu as a Netflix competitor.

              Which would also mean we should consider whether turning the web into a video platform doesn’t itself threaten better and higher uses.

              It’s too late, the ISP’s are going to do it with or without Netflix.

              Netflix didn’t force anyone to use their service.. the customer chooses to stream from them. The ISP’s charge what they do for data, no one cares what they are doing with their data except for ISP’s because it cuts into their cable business. Oh and if the costs for streaming become prohibitive I am sure there is a significant population that will go back to DVD’s.

              Lastly, the ISP’s are already subsidized. Read this article for an example of how it is misused.

              1. Carolinian

                Which is why I said there should be a lot more ISPs in my comment further down the page. This may be easier said than done but the Congress could surely put a stop to state governments restricting municipal broadband at the behest of the telecom giants. In fact it’s really Congress that needs to give the web common carrier status and end this debate.

                My other point, up page, is that I’m not at all sure that “innovation” is a good thing in and of itself. Hollywood’s plans to take over the internet–with willing consumers tagging along–could be at the root of the problem. Once the cable companies lose their pay tv cash cow to cord cutting then god knows what they will be charging us for internet in order to preserve their profits. Only greater competition will be able to keep them in check.

            2. GF

              Mobile has the solution already in that they charge for the amount of data you use. Cable has been more lenient in that my ISP has a 300 gigabyte cap per month for internet, which is far more that most mobile plans give. This is the part that may change. Cable ISPs may start charging by how much data is used, which would theoretically lower my bill as we use less that 100 GB a month. I personally don’t see the thrill of watching Netflix/Hulu shows on a mobile device when a large HD TV has much better picture quality and sound reproduction.

            3. Joel

              Why do you assume ISPs are working for Netflix?

              Wow, that’s a really big misreading of my comment.

              Under net neutrality, the ISPs are *selling* a product to a customer. The customer then decides what to use that product for. If the customers wants to use the data they’ve paid for to watch Netflix or do anything else, that is up to the customers.

              Under net neutrality, the ISPs can very well charge people who consume a lot of bandwidth more, which would hit Netflix and Hulu and Youtube users equally.

              What Comcast et al want to do is get kickbacks from Netflix and other companies, or favor companies owned by their parent companies. Since they’re natural monopolies they can provide a poor product to the consumer.

              And since these are *natural monopolies*, like water or electricity or phone service, having more than 2-3 companies competing is unrealistic. Name me a country where dozens of ISPs compete in a single municipality.

              1. vlade

                The Czech Republic.
                See, the land-based infra there is old, and building new cables is expensive.

                Cz is fairly hilly, so it relies on wireless (basically a form of WiFi, except it works for ranges within few miles, not just a few hundreds of metres). You get areas that are easily covered by dozen+ ISPs. IIRC, a decade ago there was 800+ ISP wifi IPSs, a large chunk of them community run.

                1. Joel

                  Vlade, that would be great to aspire to. Unfortunately Congress in its great wisdom has made it illegal for municipalities to offer their own broadband so that source of competition is not happening.

                  Could smaller private companies set up WiFi broadband in the US? I’m guessing that if they could have they would have and there are similar regulatory obstacles.

                  Right now what we have is net neutrality.

    2. m

      What they will slow down are those naughty Russian sites like Naked Capitalism that they don’t want you reading. You will have easy access to Fox news though!
      I am presently in the process to taking my former internet provider to small claims, this huge multinational keeps losing my refund check in the mail. Guess I will have to head back to Maine for work when I am done in Rubio country.
      Sent out all my belligerent emails to Trump, FCC, Ajit Pai, FL, CT, NY, CA, MA, AZ & ME, as I am a working nomad with no real home state.

  2. Carolinian

    Public mobilization to protect the internet is vital, but I believe articles such as the above are missing the boat on the real issue which is not net neutrality but competition. It could be that the biggest reason net neutrality has endured for so long is that for much of its life the web had a wide range of providers and that now, after a period of heavy ISP consolidation, these big companies are moving to reap the benefits of their market power. Thus while the mobile broadband companies like Verizon and ATT are indeed concerned about regulating and metering “the pipe,” the cable and satellite companies are more concerned about price regulation and therefore favor all deregulation to forestall that threat. This link describes the problem

    And this link from NC links the other day describes one solution.

    Saving the web is indeed vital but taming the wild west of the internet may not be that easy for our telecom malefactors. Hollywood tried and failed. The ISPs may as well,.

  3. JTMcPhee

    “Free and open net.” Which itself is an instrument of espionage on all users and their “friends,” and social control, and deflection, and dissemination of propaganda poached to perfection in Sauce Bernays, with the attendant crapification of actual understanding and discourse.

    We love us our bias confirmation, and many might blush to admit it, or having adapted to Gig Change in the New Disruptive Innopeevative Wolrd of Information Flow And Novel Rentier Schemes, just blandly assert that they now simply can’t LIVE without Faceplant and Oober and AirBribe and 280iTweets, and all the other “conveniences” and that us New Serfs are just absolutely comfortable having “priced” those features into Our Daily Gig Room-Sharing Lives. Irrespective of the Imponderable Deplorables who can’t rise up to their level of living.

    Fighting the wrong fights, pursuing the wrong organizing principles (as measured against species and community survival, as opposed to personal betterment and opportunity and gain. In my jaundiced and uninformed opinion, of course.

    Thoug of course many can point to Good Things Facilitated By The Net.

    We do what we can, right?

  4. Joel

    Mobile net neutrality is already dead in many countries. Facebook in particular has bought preferential access for Facebook and Whatsapp on phones in Mexico and much of Latin America. You get virtually unlimited use of Facebook and Whatsapp while your MBs of data for other services are strictly limited. So of course you tend to use more Facebook and Whatsapp. That is, of course, the opposite of net neutrality.

    India was the one big country to slap Facebook down on this in a major embarrassment for the company.

    I strongly suspect net neutrality loss will be felt most strongly on mobile, but since it will be marketed as “Free Facebook” rather than “slightly more expensive everything else,” people won’t mind it.

  5. Ook

    In other countries, lack of net neutrality does not mean “slow down Naked Capitalism”, it means you purchase 5 GB of data for your cell phone, but data related to Facebook doesn’t count as part of the 5 GB. Or complimentary access to a Sony Pictures Entertainment, Warner Bros video on demand streaming service.

    1. Joel

      Yeah, I don’t think text-based sites are really going to be much affected by this.

      But video and apps are the new frontier of the web.

      Or complimentary access to a Sony Pictures Entertainment, Warner Bros video on demand streaming service.


  6. ewmayer

    “CRAIG AARON: It’s been absolutely incredible. The last three weeks has been nothing like we’ve seen before. We have seen a huge groundswell of opposition. There were 22 million comments filed at the FCC. That’s more than any other issue, ever.” — Wait, I thought most of those comments are now widely believed to have been fraudulent. So while there may still have been ‘a huge groundswell of opposition,’ do you really want to trot out a very-likely bogus number to help make your case?

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