The 2014 Net Neutrality Wars saw two dramatic turns in the month of November, with analogues to recent history in both cases

Posted by Mitchell - November 13, 2014 (entry 710)

First came news that the FCC was drawing up a much-maligned "hybrid" approach to net neutrality, essentially dividing the internet in two, putting the back-end infrastructure under Title II common carriage provisions, while giving the front-end away to the big bad cable and phone incumbents to do with as they please. Needless to say, news of this proposal drew widespread scorn -- from both the phone/cable duopolists who wanted it ALL, and from the grassroots Heroes of the Internet who decried the proposal as too much of a capitulation to the Evildoers, and who also feared that such a policy would lose in court when it got sued (as did the FCC previous two attempts at net neutrality).

This proposed "hybrid" policy approach to net neutrality in 2014 brings to mind the "compromise" approach to media ownership that the FCC passed in 2007. At the time, then FCC-chair Kevin Martin (now a "consultant") took in a great many comments and feedback, including seven hearings held across the United States including one in Chicago. The result of this flood of feedback was a warmed-over version of the leftover dismal policies to Big Media, including some sweetheart gifts to the Tribune Corporation (which did squat to elude their march towards bankruptcy and a split of the company). The effect, then as now, was to piss off everyone: the public interest community, because it went too far; the corporations, because it didn't go far enough. In the end, the policy was overturned in court.

Days after word leaked of the proposed net neutrality "Frankenstein" plan of 2014, grassroots groups across America (including here in Chicago) organized emergency rallies decrying the proposal and calling for a geniunely protective policy -- that of Title II reclassification of the internet. Those calls got a very large boost in visibility when President Obama himself publicly supported that very reclassification. That call is quite significant; it is a strong encouragement to the FCC, and caused an evident freakout among the corporate hoi polloi.

Why make the call, and why make the call now? Part of it, to be sure, is the resounding success of public input on the docket -- some 3.7 million comments from the public, the overwhelming majority of which support a reclassification of the internet back to Title II common carriage. (Of course, what the public thinks doesn't always -- read: rarely does -- correlate to what the public wants or needs. Indeed, the FCC rammed through dismal media ownership policies in 2003 and 2007 in direct opposition to widspread popular will and the facts.) Another part of it is that, with the Republican victories in Congress in 2014, the window for Democratic-supported legislation is poised to close for the next two years, so a mentality of go-for-broke is probably enervating the Democratic party.

The trajectory of net neutrality in the latter parts of 2014 echoes the successful passage -- a decade in the making -- of the Local Community Radio Act in 2010. As in 2014, Republicans claimed one half of Congress in the wake of the 2010 elections. As in 2014, Congress had a rare window to get as much done as possible before the new Congress took hold. And as in 2014, a formidable lobby -- the National Association of Bastards Broadcasters -- stood in the way. But once the lobby was broken, passage of the bill and its signing into law became breathtakingly swift and hugely inspiring. Result: the FCC is currently considering more than 2500 applications (including a number in Chicago) for local community radio stations.

The net neutrality fight in 2014, however, also has some key differences from the community radio fight of 2010. (1) It's just a single agency -- indeed, a single man -- who holds sway over the future of policy. (2) A forthcoming Republican Congress that takes power in 2015 will almost certainly oppose a strong net neutrality statute (or, for that matter, any net neutrality statute). Congress could (in theory) override the FCC with a Resolution of Disapproval, as happened before. Whether or not that will happen, or what could happen afterwards, remains to be seen.

But for the net neutrality wars of 2014, the votes are there, the public support is clearly there, and support from the White House is now there. All of that is due to the work -- large and small -- of many MANY good folks guided by conscience. The trajectory of change is rocky but clear: We have to fight on, as we always do.

UPDATE: As I was writing this blog post, sources reported that the FCC was going to proceed ahead with its "Frankenstein" "compromise" despite Obama's support for Title II. FCC spokesperson (and former policy activist / Public Knowledge president) Gigi Sohn said that the reports are wrong and that things are still very much in formation -- so much so that a final policy recommendation shouldn't be expected until the start of 2015.

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