Victory in the Net Neutrality Wars: A Personal Recollection (2006-2015)

Posted by Mitchell - April 18, 2015 (entry 712)

This blog post is adapted from the script of a short film I made about the Net Neutrality wars, and their victory for the public in 2015. You may watch the film here:

"[T]he future of the internet is the future of everything. There is nothing in our commercial and civic lives that will be untouched by its influence or unmoved by its power." -- Jessica Rosenworcel, FCC Commissioner

On February 26, 2015, the Federal Communications Commission, in a stunning turnaround and dramatic win for the public, voted to reclassify the internet into a legal framework intended for public service, thus preserving the principle of net neutrality and improving its long-term chances for survival.

While the reclassification got scores of coverage, what got far less coverage was the work that made that vote happen -- work that was more than a decade in the making, and which I got to be a part of for nine years of that effort.

This is the story of that work.

On March 14, 2002, the FCC voted to change the legal framework governing internet modems, which gave much greater strength to corporations who sought to privatize the internet and introduce discriminatory pricing. The potential effects were dramatic: the internet, long regarded as a free and open medium, could become squelched in the wake of corporate consolidation of internet service providers who could set up a pricing regime that would turn the internet into just another version of cable television.

That reclassification vote in 2002 got barely a whisper of media coverage, and the three commissioners who carried it out would soon become high-ranking executives of the media apparatus they voted to support.

Grassroots activists began to agitate on the issue, and one internet service provider filed suit against the FCC in a case that in 2005 went all the way up to the Supreme Court. That case, NCTA vs. Brand X Internet Services, resulted in an affirmation of the FCC's right to reclassify the internet if they so chose.

That ruling, when it appeared on Slashdot, was the reason I got involved. My stomach turned, and I realized that media activists were in for a big fight.

The fight would move on to Congress, where Internet Service Providers lobbied to lock in the FCC's reclassification into law. In 2006, the vehicle to do so was the COPE Act. Chicago Media Action worked to help stop the bill which was sailing its way through a Republican Congress greased with lots of telecom cash and nary any public awareness.

Our main strategy to fight on this issue was to make it an issue in every way we resasonably could. We wrote blog posts and op-eds and Indymedia features and went on community radio and made short video features -- a lot of video features -- and sent emails and talked and talked and talked. We even organized a protest that spurred a national series of protests, under the shared banner the National Day of Outrage.

The hope was that increased public awareness would lead to increased public involvement, when both awareness and involvement were lacking.

All that work, and the work of many allies on the local and national scales, paid off. The COPE Act came to a screeching halt when Senator Ted Stephens of Alaska was captured on tape -- one recorded by an activist -- sounding like a buffoon, describing the internet as a "series of tubes". That recording gained national attention and greater awareness, embarrassing COPE Act supporters who couldn't bring the bill to a vote; the bill died from inaction.

The flurry of activity and attention also affected the FCC which to its credit did enforce a net neutrality policy, but one which was doomed to failure because of the reclassification of internet that the FCC carried out in 2002 and which the FCC refused to change back. Sure enough, the policy was defeated in court in 2010. The FCC responded later in 2010 with a second net neutrality policy, but again without changing the classification back to one that benefits the public, and in 2014 the policy was again defeated in court.

After that defeat, word leaked that the FCC would effectively surrender its net neutrality policy to Big Telecom. Just as word leaked, the public interest community mobilized to call for a reclassification and resoundingly so. The scale of the response broke all FCC records for comments on a docket in the agency's 80-year history, with about four million responses. Coverage, local and national, continued. Protests at the local level and those coordinated on the national level arose to ever-greater levels. Even the President, seeing the level of concern, announced his support for reclassification. And I delivered a series of lectures on net neutrality, which were compiled into an e-book and published.

And Big Telecom, with stale old talking points, was caught flat-footed. Signs in early 2015 showed hints of surrender by the big ISPs. And on February 24, 2015, in a room packed with activists and allies, the FCC voted to reclassify.

Lawsuits may loom from the big ISPs, and Congress may huff and puff over the FCC's supposed overstepping its bound. But the reclassification, thought to be a dead letter in early 2014, became live policy in early 2015; it gives net neutrality a much greater chance to win in court. Even so, the real win, and future wins to come, arose from the actions, large and small, of concerted individuals and groups defeating organized money.

It is a story to inspire us all.

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