Saving equal access to the internet by Marjorie Arons-Barron

Net neutrality isn’t just an issue for millennials and techies. The Federal Communications Commission’s December decision to change the rules governing access to the internet will affect us all. Your eyes glazing over? Our attitudes won’t be so “whatever” come June 11th when the change takes effect and internet service providers like AT&T, Verizon and Comcast can start to block, slow down and charge more for internet content to some users.  Ending a mandate to provide internet access fairly to all will affect our pocketbooks and our ease of using the internet.

Consumers may have to pay more for higher speed access, worsening the digital divide between rich and poor. Certain programming could come at a higher cost.  The internet and worldwide web would no longer be viewed as the public utility they surely have become in our internet age. Equal access was codified by Obama-era regulations. Obama’s name virtually guarantees that Donald Trump will reverse that protection.

The internet was originally designed as a way for universities to share information. And then it became the intellectual lifeblood of our nation and the world.  Our tax dollars supported university-based researchers through Defense Department and National Science Foundation grants.  Those efforts, viewed as a public good, led to a technological revolution, an explosion of economic activity, and a global embrace that has changed the human condition.

The importance of equal access cannot be underestimated. The public understands that and is strongly opposed  to the Trump administration’s sabotaging of that principle.  All of which explains why Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey and others have called for a vote next week to reverse the December three-to-two FCC ruling and preserve net neutrality.

“Half of all venture capital in the United States went to internet-specific and software related companies.  That’s who we are,” said Markey, stressing the importance of net neutrality.  Thirty-four percent of all jobs in Massachusetts are in the tech sector.

Markey resolved to use the Congressional Review Act to overturn imminent discriminatory pricing of internet access. Under the Act Congress may reject any proposed federal regulation with a simple majority vote. A voted is expected this week. He claims support by all the Democrats plus Susan Collins, with other possible Republicans willing to join in. But even if Markey gets the Senate to approve his resolution, there’s still the matter of the House and the President. There’s little hope there.

Some parts of the country have just one internet service provider. Given the lack of competition among ISPs, it’s not as if we can reject discriminatory pricing and take our business elsewhere. We don’t want to permit ISP’s  to block content to apps they don’t own  or slow down access to users unable to pay higher prices to be in the fast lane. We don’t want to empower ISP’s to censor websites of organizations involved in controversial social movements. Nor do we want providers to be able to quash opportunities for innovation. The possible scenarios are dire.

Net neutrality has broad public support. But the public has not spent the half a billion dollars that Verizon, Comcast and AT&T have put into lobbying the FCC.

Our best hope may be the 22 state attorneys general who are challenging the FCC ruling in court, but the leader of that coalition, New York’s Eric Schneiderman stepped down last week under charges of sexual assault. Others, like MA Attorney General Maura Healy, have to push hard and ensure that internet access is something that everyone has a right to use. There are lots of legal maneuvers left for supporters of net neutrality.  Clearer understanding of what’s at stake could help inform voters in the mid-term elections.

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