Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 3 / 18 January 2018
 

Saving the internet

Editorial


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As we expected, the Federal Communications Commission voted this month to repeal the rules that established a free and open internet. This dismantling of network neutrality has enormous consequences for the nation, as internet service providers, or ISPs, can block sites or deliberately slow down their speed. It's unclear how the major ISPs – AT&T, Comcast, and Verizon – will respond to this deregulation, but, to be clear, they're gleeful that the FCC has scrapped net neutrality and it's likely only a matter of time until we see changes. Comcast reportedly met with the FCC in November (before the vote) to talk about ways to prevent states from enacting their own net neutrality laws.

But state action is warranted now, and California is poised to lead the charge. Even before the FCC vote, state Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) said he would explore legislation to adopt net neutrality in California. Just minutes after the FCC's decision, Wiener issued a news release doubling down on that pledge.

"Net neutrality is essential to our 21st century democracy, and we need to be sure that people can access websites and information freely and fairly," he stated in the release. "If the FCC is going to destroy net neutrality and create a system that favors certain websites just because they can pay more money, California must step in and ensure open internet access."

In an interview last week, Wiener said he's planning to introduce legislation next month, after the Legislature reconvenes. He also gave us a preview of his ideas.

First, Wiener doesn't agree that states can't create their own net neutrality rules. "It's more complicated than to have the federal government do it," he said. "And though the FCC included a pre-emption [for states to craft their own laws], we think the FCC is on shaky ground."

The way Wiener sees it California can use its leverage to force an open internet through "its massive contracting power," particularly broadband contracts. The state also regulates cable franchises, creates broadband consumer protection, and allows telecom and cable companies to use the public right of way. He's crafting legislation to address all of those areas as ways to ensure an open internet. For example, to get a state contract, a company must utilize net neutrality. If a telecom company wants to use the public right of way, it must allow open access to the internet.

Second, we asked Wiener about potential support for such a bill. While he declined to mention specific people or organizations since the legislation has yet to be drafted, Wiener is confident he will have support from fellow lawmakers and others.

"I've seen few issues that rile people up as much as net neutrality," he said, adding that in the past Democrats have been "deeply passionate," and now, even Republicans are concerned about the impending changes at the federal level. "This is not a partisan issue," Wiener said. People like to decide what websites to go to and don't want ISPs to dictate that by imposing onerous fees or slowing down sites.

Tech companies should strongly consider Wiener's proposal, as many of them have an interest in user numbers. Companies like Netflix depend on users streaming their content. Facebook and Google currently make up the majority of online ad sales but that could decrease if advertisers feel they aren't getting a return on their investment (or people stop using the sites so much). Wiener also pointed out that brick and mortar stores have a stake in net neutrality; customers are shopping online more than ever, including websites for popular retailers.

Third, Wiener, a gay man, pointed out how vital the internet is to the LGBTQ community. The internet is at the heart of 21st century culture, not only for the abovementioned commercial purposes, but also for information.

"It's a lifeline for LGBT youth and others who are isolated or who live in parts of the country or world where they don't have community," Wiener pointed out.

The internet, he added, lets LGBTs know that "your community is out there."

The LGBTQ community benefits from net neutrality, as does everyone else, but is in danger over losing ground on hard fought rights. The queer community has come to depend on the internet for fundraising, organizing, lobbying, and increasing support. The trans community, in particular, would suffer devastating consequences: many trans people are underemployed or unemployed, meaning they don't have the resources to pay additional fees for access to email and the web. Many of them also rely on the internet for medical and other information.

We support Wiener's effort to establish California as a net neutrality state and hope that his legislation becomes a model for other states. If successful – and Wiener is nothing if not persistent – the Golden State will send a strong message to ISPs: the internet must remain free and open to all.

 






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