This week, millions of Americans returned to work after spending time with family and friends over the Thanksgiving holiday. Amidst the travel and meal preparations, many may have missed the "Pre-Holiday News Dump" last Wednesday when Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Ajit Pai released his 200 plus page proposal to dismantle the agency's open internet protections.
Commonly referred to as "net neutrality," what is at stake is the ability of consumers and businesses to reach the online applications and services of their choosing without interference from their broadband provider. This has been a bipartisan bedrock principle for more than a decade, it was upheld in court last year, and has existed all while investment by broadband providers continues to grow.
When I joined the FCC in 2009, as one of the agency's five Commissioners, Netflix's streaming video service had been around for just two years. Tumblr was still a relatively new player and Spotify was still two years away from launching in the U.S. These companies have seen tremendous growth over the past eight years thanks to a level playing field. Their continued success depends on an ability to reach their customers without discriminatory interference by the nation's largest broadband providers.
This has not always been the case. Broadband providers tell us to trust them – that they have no interest in engaging in anti-consumer or anti-competitive practices. But the record contains many real-world examples when broadband providers blocked lawful applications, such as when several wireless providers blocked Google Wallet in favor of these providers' own affiliated app. Net neutrality principles were established at the FCC as far back as 2004 to prevent exactly this type of bad behavior.
To be clear, net neutrality is much bigger than any one company or individual. In the nearly seven months since the FCC Chairman launched his plans to rollback net neutrality, the public outcry has been loud and fierce. I traveled the country to take part in town halls in Atlanta, Los Angeles, Seattle, and Marietta, Ohio to hear what consumers and small businesses had to say about the proposed rollback. I spoke with individuals who depend on the open internet for school work, job applications, telehealth services and much more.
Most recently, I took part in a roundtable discussion in Brooklyn, New York. I heard from micro-businesses (those with just a few employees) on what an open internet has meant for them economically as well as the benefits that have come from being able to spend more time with their families. They told me that they wouldn't have the financial resources to pay a toll imposed by their broadband provider and are now fearful of what rolling back the clock will mean for their futures. But in two weeks, the robust, bright-line net neutrality rules that I and so many others have championed for years could be wiped out completely.
My fellow Commissioners would benefit from hosting their own public forums and listening to the concerns raised by consumers and small businesses. Doing so would allow them to hear first-hand on what it means to access the internet without fear that their broadband provider will slow down or block their favorite online applications and services. My colleagues would benefit from hearing concerns about broadband providers' poor service, surprise price hikes, and inadequate customer support, so, why won't they?
If the federal government is not willing to stand by these basic protections, surely states and localities will step in to fill the gap? Sadly, the Chairman's proposal tramples over the rights of these communities and will actually prevent them from adopting any related consumer protections – an action I believe is likely unlawful and will no doubt be litigated in court.
Chairman Pai's own bio states that "[t]he FCC is at its best when it proceeds on the basis of consensus; good communications policy knows no partisan affiliation." I agree. In practice though, this is not the approach the Chairman has chosen to take on more than a dozen actions this year that directly harm consumers and small businesses, including opening the door to massive media consolidation, and weakening a program designed to provide low-income Americans with affordable phone and broadband service. Nor is it the path we are heading on when it comes to net neutrality.
The FCC's public comment process was established for a reason, and through that mechanism millions of comments have been filed by the public, with the vast majority of legitimate, unique filers opposing the rollback of net neutrality. This jibes with a recent public opinion poll showing that three-quarters of Americans support net neutrality.
Now it is time to listen but if the FCC's majority is unwilling to take this simple step, then the most responsible way forward is for the Chairman to withdraw his proposal prior to the December 14th scheduled vote.
Consumers and small businesses count on the FCC to be the standard bearer when it comes to upholding and protecting the public interest. We should to do the right thing. We ought to listen to what the American people are saying. We must stand up, speak out and work to ensure that the internet remains a platform for innovation and free expression in the decades to come.