Unless you’ve been living in a bubble for the last year, you will be aware of the role “alternative facts” played in the Presidential election.
From mainstream media outlets like FOX News to alt-right websites like Breitbart, misinformation was —and still is—a hallmark of Donald Trump’s campaign and presidency.
With half of Americans between the ages of 18-49 consuming their news online, it is critical, now more than ever, that we have fair access to the Internet.
That is the basic principle at the heart of what is known as net neutrality.
The law at present requires that broadband providers do not slow down or block individual customers’ access to the internet. It also prohibits organizations from paying for their content, websites and applications to load faster than anyone else’s. All traffic must be treated equally.
According to the Global Net Neutrality Coalition (GNNC), a global network of organizations and users dedicated to preserving the open internet, “Network Neutrality is the principle according to which internet traffic shall be treated equally, without discrimination, restriction or interference regardless of its senders, recipient, type or content, so that internet users’ freedom of choice is not restricted by favoring or disfavoring the transmission of internet traffic associated with particular content, services, applications or devices.”
Groups like the GNNC argue that broadband should be treated as a public utility and service providers should not be able to control how users access the internet.
Today in the US, the question of whether net neutrality should be regulated by the government is a contentious one. Net neutrality is currently regulated by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) which, even before Donald Trump came to power, became embroiled in controversy over the matter.
In 2015, under the Obama administration, the FCC reclassified broadband as a “common carrier” service under Title II of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 for the purposes of enforcing net neutrality. This ruffled the feathers of broadband providers like AT&T and Comcast, who argued that the ruling would hurt their businesses.
In response the broadband providers filed a joint lawsuit against the FCC, arguing that the reclassification of broadband as a common carrier service was an overreach of its powers. The following June, after the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit upheld the FCC’s net neutrality rules, AT&T and others announced that they would take the case all the way to the Supreme Court.
All this took place before Donald Trump’s election. Now, under the new administration, the FCC’s position as the enemy of broadband service providers is set to change.
On January 23, President Trump confirmed Ajit Pai as the new chairman of the FCC. Pai—who previously worked at broadband provider Verizon Communications and voted against the FCC’s net neutrality regulations—believes that net neutrality should be governed by competitive market forces rather than federal regulation.
So where does this leave the average American voter?
At the most fundamental level, protections around net neutrality mean that a person on the poverty line will be treated the same as a huge corporation when it comes to internet access. It’s what makes net neutrality a civil liberties issue.
If Trump and Pai are successful in their efforts to end net neutrality in the United States, the internet will no longer be open. At the very time when information should be available to all, it will be slowed down and sold off to the highest bidder. Simply put, if “the truth” was in the cross hairs before, it is now under siege.
But there are ways to fight back.
Priscilla Grim, one of the organizers of Occupy Wall Street, co-founder of the website We Are the 99 Percent, and co-editor of The Occupied Wall Street Journal, has a radical idea for undermining big businesses interests in dismantling net neutrality.
“If you live in a multi-unit building, you can talk to your neighbors and all decide to take the passwords off of your Wifi networks. You can then provide free internet to your neighborhood,” Grim says.
Another option is to donate or get involved with organizations such as www.freepress.org, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (www.eff.org) and www.publicknowledge.org, which are all petitioning the FCC to preserve net neutrality. In the past, the FCC has shown itself susceptible to public pressure, and there’s no reason to think it wouldn’t be effective today.
Civil rights are under assault across multiple fronts, and it may be tempting to let the issue of net neutrality slide when there are so many other battles to be fought. Yet an open internet is the cornerstone of a free and fair democracy, and an essential precondition of an informed populace. We must fight for it.
Photo credit: The Backbone Campaign/Flickr (CC-BY SA)