The Ghost of Net Neutrality

The Federal Communications Commission killed it late last year, but in some quarters hope for net neutrality lives on. Advocates from federal and state governments, non-profit organizations, and private enterprise are each fighting on separate fronts to revive it, determined to keep the internet free and open. But are any of these warriors strong enough to keep Obama-era regulations alive in 2018—and keep revenues flowing freely through the digital universe?

Democrats seek to reverse the rollback
Senate Democrats moved to overturn the FCC ruling in January, relying on a congressional rule that allows a simple majority vote to reverse a federal agency’s ruling. With just two Republican votes, the Democrats could pass a resolution to reverse the agency’s unpopular decision. That vote would reveal whether Republicans are on the side of “big ISPs and major corporations,” as Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer stated, or the side of “consumers, entrepreneurs, and small business owners.”

But there’s no clear path forward. If the Senate resolution passes, the Republican-dominant House of Representatives must then pass a separate resolution, the speaker of the house must allow a vote, and the president must sign it–all highly doubtful.

The Republicans are contemplating a new law that would bar ISPs from slowing down or blocking web traffic as they choose. However, that proposal ignores the fact that ISPs could still offer high-priced “fast lanes” to big business, and still leave everyone else in the dust.

State lawmakers take action
Many states have joined the fight by filing suit against the FCC in the U.S. District Court of Appeals, calling the federal ruling an unlawful, “arbitrary and capricious” decision. Representing attorneys general from 22 states†, New York A.G. Eric Schneiderman declared that ending net neutrality makes internet service providers “gatekeepers” with the power to “put profits over consumers while controlling what we see, what we do, and what we say online.”

In another state-level bid to protect consumers, six states†† have introduced legislation to enact their own net neutrality laws. Such laws could thwart the ISPs potential for greater control by outlawing the creation of new fast lanes for particular users.

Businesses and non-profits join the fray
The tech giants like Amazon, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft have announced their opposition through the Internet Association, which in early January announced that it would “intervene” in pending lawsuits. In a statement, the trade group said it would “push to restore strong, enforceable net neutrality protections through a legislative solution.” One IA member company, Etsy, has gone further, filing a lawsuit on behalf of “small business, like Etsy’s 1.9 million sellers.” Althea Erickson, Etsy head of advocacy and impact, told Gizmodo that “the needs and concerns of millions of microbusinesses must trump those of a few giant cable companies.”

In agreement with that stand, several non-profits and public interest groups have filed lawsuits to strike down the FCC ruling in appeals courts. Among these are Free Press, Mozilla, Open Technology Institute (of the New America Foundation), and Public Knowledge. All concur with Mozilla (creator of the Firefox browser), which states that the FCC decision “harms internet users and innovators,” and in fact “really only benefits large Internet Service Providers.”

What would it mean to the digital ecosystem if these efforts to repeal the ruling should succeed? Advertisers and publishers would surely rejoice, as the rebirth of net neutrality would spare them the specter of financial harm. In the shadow of the FCC decision, the outlook looks gloomy—but as long as it has champions to fight for it, net neutrality hangs onto the ghost of a chance.

† California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Mississippi, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Washington DC
†† California, Massachusetts, Nebraska, New York, Rhode Island, and Washington

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