It’s been two years since net neutrality was killed in the US. Let’s celebrate by having another fight over it

Senate Democrats push for another vote; get rejected again

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Comment Making it clear that the issue of net neutrality has become an entrenched partisan battle, Democratic Senators used the two-year anniversary of its death on Tuesday to push for a vote that would reverse the decision.

The vote was denied by the Republican majority, making it the third time that Congress has used the issue as a weapon by calling a vote they know they will lose in an effort to score political points.

Although it has yet to reach the ridiculous depth of Republicans in the House of Representatives who voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act aka Obamacare more than 50 times between 2011 and 2014, despite knowing it would have no impact, the pointless protest vote moves the issue further away from resolution and into the realms of strictly partisan topics.

What makes the situation that much more ridiculous is that net neutrality is not an issue that voters are split on, like abortion or gun rights. Polls consistently show that between 70 and 80 per cent of American voters are in favor of net neutrality and that holds up across pretty much every demographic.

In this case, the partisan divide has been entirely manufactured by the cable industry for its own ends. And because that approach has proved so successful, it is a certainty that other industries have studied it in case they also need laws passed - or removed - that don’t have widespread support.

The problem with increasingly unreasonable, entrenched behavior is that it is self-perpetuating, with one side feeding off past slights to express their outrage which in turn sparks a furious response from the other side.

A good example in this case came in a speech from a senator who is widely respected for his non-partisan stance on issues like encryption, surveillance and various other tech topics, Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR).

On the floor of the Senate on Tuesday, Wyden began his speech: “Two years ago this week, Ajit Pai and the Trump FCC wiped out net neutrality, giving Big Cable more power to reach into their customers’ pockets and control what they can do online.”

Pai and Trump reappear again a few sentences later: “Ajit Pai and Donald Trump are opposed to that kind of internet freedom, so they got rid of it. They decided that once you pay for access to the internet, you should get to go where Big Cable wants, when Big Cable wants and how Big Cable wants. Essentially, it’s about whether Big Cable gets to rig the internet in favor of those who can afford to pay more, and shake down everybody else.”

He’s not wrong but the direct connection between cable companies, President Trump and the FCC is exactly the dynamic that has caused the problem in the first place.

The start of it

On December 14, 2017, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) did a strange thing: it reversed its own rules, devised less than two years earlier. These were the third version of rules that were intended to define how internet access is regulated in the US, the previous two having been struck down by legal challenges brought by telcos.

The vote was split along party political lines with three Republican commissioners voting to scrap the rules and two Democratic commissioners rejecting the idea. That in itself is not unusual - the FCC often votes along such lines - but what was remarkable was the approach taken by the newly christened chair of the FCC, Ajit Pai.

Pai went out of his way to make the issue partisan, giving a series of speeches that sounded more like right-wing commentators on Fox News than the head of a policymaking body. It was a calculated decision: with Donald Trump installed as president and his term on the FCC coming to a close, Pai decided that the best path forward for his career was to choose sides.

And it worked. By clearly identifying himself as a Trumpian by using outrageous language unencumbered by truth or reality, he won himself the FCC chairmanship.

Pai accused the head of a pro-net neutrality lobbying group of being, alternatively, a socialist, a supporter of the regime in Venezuela and wanting to destroy capitalism itself. He adopted extreme language that had nothing to do with dry policy debates, deriding those who disagreed with him and disregarding their arguments before they were even made.

“You will hear from the other side that Title II regulation is the only way to preserve a free and open Internet,” he said in one speech organized by a far-right Republican group and featuring far-right speakers - the kind of event that an FCC chair would have politely declined in the past.

“This is a lie. They will repeat it over and over again, but it's just not true. And you don't have to be a regulator or a lawyer to figure that out. You just need to have a memory."

Ludicrous

Those opposed to giving cable companies free reign in the internet market were painted, by Pai, as being “typical of a larger movement in our country today that is fundamentally hostile to free speech” - a charge so ludicrous that it’s hard to know how to respond.

Pai even began pushing various conspiracy theories and embraced whatever that week’s partisan manufactured outrage was. Just one example, verbatim: “We see it in efforts to banish those who express unpopular views online. We see it when speakers are barred from college campuses, violently of late. We see it when university bureaucrats use Orwellian phrases like wanting 'to continue empowering a culture of controversy prevention.'

"And we see it when members of the Federal Election Commission seek to restrict political speech and regulate online platforms like the Drudge Report.” You have probably forgotten the three incidents referred to there and that's because they were forgettable; designed only to elicit outrage.

By perhaps the peak of this nonsense was a video released on the eve of the net neutrality vote. It was produced by right-wing site The Daily Caller and in it Pai dressed up as Santa and Luke Skywalker, among others, while issuing a list of things you "will still be able to do" once the “Obama-era” net neutrality safeguards are voted out.

How did this madness start and how was it exploited by the cable industry?

That came courtesy of Barack Obama. As the FCC was trying to figure out how to introduce internet rules that would hold up to legal challenge while still giving the regulator the ability to clamp down on market abuse, it contemplated a “hybrid” solution that would split internet access into "wholesale" and "retail" in an effort to find a solution that everyone could live with.

But someone with the president’s ear wanted a broader complete solution and ultimately persuaded Obama to weigh in on the issue by arguing that all internet access should be classified under the same law (Title II) that covers telephone lines - something that cable companies were fiercely opposed to.

Enter Obama

The president made a video making that case and while he acknowledged that the FCC was an independent agency, the pressure was clear and ultimately that is what the FCC under chair Tom Wheeler decided to do.

Because the president has involved himself and stated what he wanted to happen, the Republican party automatically positioned itself against it. And the cable companies made the most of it by throwing their lobbyists and cash at Republican lawmakers.

Those rules may still have held however if the person ultimately chosen as the United States’ new president - Donald Trump - hadn’t made it his personal mission to unravel every policy decision made by President Obama. And soon enough, net neutrality ended up on the slate.

That stance was then taken up by Pai, desperate to get the FCC chair position, and he started amping up his rhetoric, pulling the net neutrality issue into the political arena. Just one example from another of Pai’s speeches:

"Days after a disappointing 2014 midterm election, and in order to energize a dispirited base, the White House released an extraordinary YouTube video instructing the FCC to implement Title II regulations. This was a transparent attempt to compromise the agency's independence. And it worked.”

Love the haters

The Trump transition hired fervent anti-net neutrality advocates to look at tech policy and they pushed the issue into Trump’s mind and on his agenda, no doubt while repeatedly pointing out that Obama was very strongly behind it.

Boss leans back comfortably in desk. Pic via Shutterstock

Remember the millions of fake net neutrality comments? They weren't as kosher as the FCC made out

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And so we have ended up in the position where net neutrality has become an entirely partisan issue. Even those that think the current situation is an open excuse for cable companies to abuse their position have been driven into voting with their party, again and again.

Because so many American voters think net neutrality is actually a good idea, the Democrats have persuaded themselves that it is a potential vote-winner and so have been flogging the issue to death while being given cover by people who genuinely do feel that net neutrality rules are needed.

But the daily battles that Washington lives for, the endless point scoring in a game far removed from anyone’s daily pursuits doesn’t persuade anyone to switch their vote; it just makes them dislike and distrust politicians all the more. So they vote the same. Much as Congress does. ®

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