By Edward Fitzpatrick
Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai wants you to believe that killing net neutrality would be a big win for the little guy.
The former Verizon lawyer wants you to believe he’s acting in the best interest of the public — not in the interest of big broadband companies such as Verizon, AT&T and Comcast.
Pai, who was appointed chairman by President Donald Trump in January, wants you to believe that repealing net neutrality rules would result in investments and improvements — rather than blocking or slowing access to web content, thereby creating “fast lanes” for those who can pay more and rutted back roads for the rest of us.
Don’t buy it.
People on both sides of the political aisle should fight this ill-conceived plan before it’s too late to save the free and open internet we enjoy today.
On Dec. 14, the FCC plans to vote on rescinding the net neutrality rules, which were enacted in 2015 to stop internet service providers (ISPs) from blocking, slowing access to or charging more for certain content. The basic idea is that broadband service should be treated like a utility, such as electricity or the telephone.
Today, more than half of the American public — and 71 percent of those between the ages of 18 and 29 — say the internet is one of their main sources of news, according to the Pew Research Center. The internet is our public square. So there are clear implications for a free press, free speech and innovation if the government makes this a pay-to-play technology rather than an open forum that’s just as accessible to big media companies as little startups and new voices.
The public should not have to hope that bottom-line behemoths will value and maintain a diversity of viewpoints and refrain from stifling views or news they deem unworthy or unprofitable. The public should not have to trust that increased profits will trickle down to improve services rather than boost shareholder value. The free marketplace of ideas should not be sacrificed at the free-market altar.
“The beauty of the internet is that it democratizes the press,” said Justin Silverman, executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition. “It allows us all to share information and inform our communities.”
Removing net neutrality protections would cede control of that information, Silverman said.
“We are letting a small group of companies play gatekeeper and determine whether it is our voice heard and our words read,” he said. “This should terrify anyone who values democracy and the free flow of ideas. With an unfettered internet, we all have a soapbox. We can’t let that soapbox be pulled from underneath our feet.”
Roger Williams University journalism professor Paola Prado said, “Let’s be clear that the repeal of net neutrality does not promote competition. What it does is allow telecommunications conglomerates to filter and funnel internet traffic for profit.”
The proposed FCC action is an affront to the First Amendment, Prado said.
“Before the advent of the internet, the First Amendment protected a press distributed at first in print and, later, on airwaves,” she said. “The 21st century press publishes on the internet. Whether it be mainstream legacy media stalwarts The Washington Post and The New York Times, or digital-only independent outlets Politico and Slate, the press is no longer a synonym for print or broadcast. The press is online. Any federal regulation or deregulation that limits access to the press does so in defiance of our First Amendment rights.”
Also, Prado noted that on Cyber Monday, more than 200 firms — including Airbnb, Pinterest, Reddit, Tumblr, Twitter and Vimeo — signed a letter to Pai, decrying deregulation as a threat to their existence, according to the Broadcasting & Cable trade magazine.
“Companies big and small have credited a thriving and competitive e-commerce on free and open internet access,” she said.
RWU journalism students are not remaining neutral on net neutrality.
“The proposal to abolish net neutrality is a direct threat to our First Amendment rights as journalists and people in general,” junior Kayla Ebner said. “Equal access to information is essential for journalists to be able to present important and accurate news.”
Senior Connor Linskey said people are used to a level playing field, where they can access whatever website they want, anywhere, any time, to get the news where they choose.
“This way of life is about to die,” he said.
The biggest impact could hit marginalized communities that rely on an open internet to organize, educate and fight discrimination, he added.
Senior Lauren DiCenso said scrapping net neutrality “would take away the voice of ordinary citizens who have the opportunity to speak against the great and powerful.”
She quoted comedian John Oliver, who said, “If we let cable companies offer two speeds of service, they won’t be Usain Bolt and Usain Bolt on a motorbike. They will be Usain Bolt and Usain bolted to an anchor.”
But it’s no joke. If the FCC kills net neutrality, consumers will pay the price.
Edward Fitzpatrick is director of media and public relations at Roger Williams University and a member of NEFAC’s Board of Directors. This post originally appeared on the university’s First Amendment blog.
NEFAC was formed in 2006 to advance and protect the Five Freedoms of the First Amendment, including the principle of the public’s right to know. We’re a broad-based organization of people who believe in the power of an informed democratic society. Our members include lawyers, journalists, historians, academics and private citizens.
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Major Supporters of NEFAC for this year include the Barr Foundation, The Providence Journal Charitable Legacy Fund, The Robertson Foundation, Lois Howe McClure, The Boston Globe and Boston University. Celebration Supporters include The Hartford Courant and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.