Guest Editorial: Why Congress must prioritize net neutrality
This editorial is from the East Bay Times:
It’s been 18 months since Joe Biden was inaugurated as president. Yet restoring crucial net neutrality rules that are the foundation for an open internet continues to languish in Washington.
The problem stems from Democratic lawmakers’ inability to confirm Biden’s nominee, Gigi Sohn, as chair of the Federal Communications Commission. She is needed to break the 2-2 deadlock on the FCC that continues to block action on net neutrality and broadband privacy regulations.
Now Democrats in Congress say they plan to introduce new legislation that would not only restore net neutrality rules but also give the FCC greater ability to protect consumer privacy and competition in the broadband market. Passing strong net neutrality legislation can’t happen too soon.
Net neutrality is the principle that all internet traffic should be treated equally. Tech pioneers including Tim Berners-Lee and Vint Cerf have long advocated that internet service providers shouldn’t be able to pick winners and losers online, creating an internet that resembles the cable TV industry. Consumer advocates argue that providers should be required to offer equal access to all sites and applications at the same speed. Democrats, independents and Republicans agree. Polls consistently show that 75% of Americans support net neutrality rules.
Ajit Pai, former President Donald Trump’s FCC chair, argued that a “light touch, market-based approach” would result in consumers gaining access to faster average internet speeds. In 2018, Pai dumped the tough net neutrality rules put in place by Tom Wheeler, President Barack Obama’s FCC chair.
But giving broadband providers such as Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile and Comcast a free rein allows them to rake in billions while serving as kingmakers. They have the power to pick winners and losers online by charging content providers and users higher rates for faster service. It stifles innovation. Startups simply don’t have the funding to compete, making it less attractive for users to download their content.
It also threatens basic services. The Santa Clara County Fire Department learned that hard lesson in 2018 when it was called on to help fight the Mendocino Complex Fire, the third largest wildfire ever recorded in California history. Verizon admitted that it throttled firefighters’ internet connection down to one-two hundredth of the normal speed despite being told it was hampering efforts to fight the fire. Verizon offered to restore normal service if the department would agree to a plan that was three times the amount of its monthly plan.
Verizon officials later admitted they had made a mistake in throttling the connection in an emergency situation, but the incident illustrates the potential consequences of allowing broadband providers to act at will.
Democrats should force a vote in the Senate on Sohn’s nomination as FCC chair. And Congress should quickly pass legislation that would ensure that the FCC provide basic broadband consumer protections that ensure an open internet.
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