Placing net neutrality and the evolution of the Internet in an historical context, Tim Wu argues that if we look at the history of communication technologies in the twentieth century we soon see that the Internet is not the first platform that initially seemed to be uniquely “open” in character, or seemed to be free of centralized control or monopoly by business interests. Indeed, he argues, there have been a succession of media platforms that began as “somebody’s hobby” but moved “from jury-rigged contraption to slick production marvel; from a freely accessible channel to one strictly controlled by a single corporation or cartel—from open to closed system” (Wu 2010: 6). Wu calls this “the cycle”, a move from innovation and openness to commercialization and control by corporate forces (2010).
To understand “the cycle” as it could relate to the Internet, the story of early radio broadcasting is instructive. In a manner not so different to the techno-utopianism that is often attached today to the Internet, early radio “inspired, in the United States and around the world, an extraordinary faith in its potential as the benefactor, perhaps even savior, of mankind” (Wu 2010:36). In the 1920s, almost anyone could get a license to operate a radio station and many were “operated by nonprofit organizations like religious groups, civic organizations, labor unions, and, in particular, colleges and universities” (McChesney 1993:14). During radio broadcasting’s very early years, the advertising-driven commercial stations that would dominate the industry from the 1930s onwards were a minority among the stations in operation. [open endnotes in new window] This began to change towards the end of the 1920s as commercial broadcasters pressed for regulation that would give them more control over the airwaves. Their thinking was embraced by government regulators who believed, first, radio broadcasting would best flourish if it was in the hands of private companies rather than government officials, and second, that broadcasters could be largely left to self-regulate their activities, with only a few concessions made towards using the airwaves to serve the public interest.
Over a decade and a half, radio broadcasting in the U.S. was transformed from its first incarnation as an open system, to a closed system that was firmly in the hands of the big broadcasters of the period, the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) and Columbia Broadcasting Service (CBS). The regulatory framework adopted for radio by the early FCC was later applied to television, leading to regulations that allowed NBC, CBS, and the American Broadcasting Company (ABC) to dominate broadcasting in the U.S. for the next half century; all the while pushing to near invisibility other models of broadcasting. In the eyes of the commercial broadcasters and their allies among government regulators, handing the airwaves over to the “big three” was both the best and the most natural way for things to be done.
Returning to the present, Wu cautions that if the Internet undergoes “the cycle” from an open to closed system, “the practical consequences will be staggering” (Wu 2010: 7). He argues that a possible scenario is the introduction of a tiered system where Internet users have access to basic Internet service equipped with simple applications such as email for an affordable cost, with higher and higher charges introduced for access to additional content or services (Wu 2017, June 13). If net neutrality ends, this won’t happen overnight. But as pro-net neutrality FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn warns, after its demise and “as the outrage and awareness fade, you will likely see providers roll out plans and features that are inconsistent with net neutrality” (FCC 2017, December 21). There are many arguments for why we might seek to resist the dismantling of net neutrality, from communication rights and the need for freedom of expression, to ensuring that the Internet supports the innovation in products or services provided by edge providers. Not surprising then that Wu reports,
“I have met many people who are personally passionate about the open Internet, who care about freedom of speech, who care about the right to innovate. I have never met anyone, who’s not a cable lobbyist, passionate about getting rid of net neutrality” (Wu 2017, June 13).
A rise in media activism
The early days of U.S. radio broadcasting offer a second useful touchstone with regard to an examination of the mass mobilization that is presently underway for net neutrality. During the late 1920s and early 1930s a popular movement emerged, led by “[e]lements of education, labor, religion, the press, civic groups, and the intelligentsia,” to fight to ensure that a significant section of the airwaves be set aside for noncommercial and nonprofit use (McChesney 1993: 3). Ultimately unsuccessful, the radio reform movement was defeated by the introduction of the Communications Act of 1934. But had a different outcome been won, the U.S. media landscape might look very different to the way it looks today. Activism in the media policy arena did not stop in the 1930s. In the 1960s, the United Church of Christ and National Association for the Advancement of Colored People made important inroads when they challenged the depiction of African Americans in news reports on a Jackson television station, eventually winning victories in both their campaign against the local broadcaster and in establishing the precedent that the FCC must seek public input on its decision making (Aufderheide 1999: 5; Themba & Rubin 2003, Oct 30). The latter remains in place today, with the FCC required to seek public comments before implementing policy changes.
Describing the rise of recent U.S. communications activism, McChesney argues that in the 1980s a “sophisticated popular critique of the limitations of the media system” developed, along with a growing understanding that the existent “media system was inhospitable to democracy and social justice and [that if] we were serious about democracy and social justice, we had to change the media system” (McChesney 2008: 4-5). In the 1990s, the U.S. media landscape was rapidly transformed: deregulation led to increased media conglomeration; commercialism of media content was on the rise with a parallel decline in serious news reporting; and already weak public service requirements were further eroded. Deepening the concerns of those who believe that the communications arena must serve democracy and justice first and foremost, the 1996 Telecommunications Act—the most far reaching rewrite of government communications policy since the 1930s—is pro-corporate in thrust and provides license for further corporate domination of the communications arena, including over the Internet. Jeff Chester argues that in light of regulatory changes in the late 1990s and early 2000s,
“For the first time in decades, members of the public appeared at the FCC in sizable numbers, objecting to plans by the GOP majority to jettison media ownership policy safeguards” (Chester 2007:47).
The U.S. communications rights movement has grown exponentially since the turn of the millennium, drawing strength from increasing public awareness of communications policy issues, as well as from the presence of public-serving advocacy organizations such as the Center for Media Justice (CMJ), Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), and Free Press. Organizations such as these serve as a backbone of the U.S. communications rights movement, providing hubs from which to organize support or launch campaign efforts, while operating as research centers that closely follow communication policy issues and disseminate information about them to allies, the press, and the public. The effort has been energized and strengthened by the emergence of an army of Internet activists, and by organizations created to address the concerns of this constituency, such as Fight for the Future and Demand Progress—the latter co-founded in 2010 by Internet activist Aaron Swartz. For Internet activists, issues such as the preservation of online freedoms, opposition to invasive online government surveillance, and the threat of restrictive copyright rules, have been sites of struggle and repeated campaigns. Prior to the 2014-2015 and 2017 mobilizations in support of net neutrality, many of the organizations involved in net neutrality work had operated in partnership on other campaigns, such as the successful 2011-2012 effort to oppose passage of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and Protect IP Act (PIPA), or had developed informal ties through mutual involvement in convenings and conferences such as Detroit’s annual Allied Media Conference.
Another constituency playing a role in the struggle for net neutrality is edge providers. Net neutrality is key to the launch of new online services by edge providers of all sizes, as well as integral to their business model once up and running. In the absence of net neutrality, edge providers could be required to pay for access to the broadband networks they use to bring their products or services to Internet users, or find themselves competing at a disadvantage with the products or services offered by the broadband ISPs. Facing these conditions, start-up edge providers might never be able to find a foothold. The involvement of Internet companies, including some of the most profitable of their kind, highlights how the mobilization for net neutrality is heterogeneous in character. While all the constituencies fighting for net neutrality appear to be willing to work in unison within a loose coalition, the involvement of powerful corporate edge providers raises numerous questions that are beyond the scope of this article. Suffice to note that there are significant philosophical differences between coalition partners motivated by an altruistic belief in communication rights, and Silicon Valley edge providers for whom net neutrality is integral to their profit margin and meteoric rise as economic powerhouses.
Organizing to fight for net neutrality
The fragile status of net neutrality has been a matter of concern since the passing of the 1996 Telecommunications Act. The issue became more pressing year-by-year as Internet users migrated from dial-up services (where they accessed the Internet using phone lines and were protected by telephony’s common carrier rules) to ‘triple play’, where service is provided by broadband ISPs and existed without net neutrality rules until 2015. In 2005, the Save The Internet campaign reported that it had rallied “a real grass-roots coalition of more than 700 groups, 5,000 bloggers and 750,000 individual Americans” (Lessig & McChesney 2006, June 8). Still, at this time, net neutrality was not a major news story and it was “too often relegated to the business section of the paper” (Chester 2007:190). In 2010, seeking to put net neutrality on firmer ground, the Democratic controlled FCC released the Open Internet Order (FCC 2010, December 23). This poorly conceived ruling was swiftly overturned by a lawsuit initiated by Verizon. But although the judge reviewing the case found that the method used in this instance to proscribe net neutrality was not lawful under the FCC’s own rules, he stated that the commission does possess the regulatory authority to require net neutrality.
Towards the end of the 2013, net neutrality became a front page major news story when Netflix accused Comcast of deliberately slowing the delivery of its video-on-demand service to users; a problem that was only remedied when Netflix paid for better access to Comcast’s network. In early 2014, the issue heated further, with the FCC making tentative moves to introduce what net neutrality advocates saw as another weak set of net neutrality rules. This led to an outpouring of public engagement on the issue as Internet users deluged the blogosphere with expressions of outrage at the FCC’s plan.
“[M]ore than a hundred Internet companies, from smaller tech firms like Etsy and Tumblr up to older authorities like Google, Microsoft, and eBay, wrote the Commission to signal their dissatisfaction with the proposal” (Wu 2014, May 9).
During the summer and fall of 2014, public pressure for strong net neutrality rules mounted. An aggressive campaign using the moniker the “Battle for the Net” was mobilized, with the FCC reporting that it had received nearly four million public comments on net neutrality, the most ever on a single issue up to that time (FCC 2014, December 23). In November 2014, the Obama Administration issued a statement indicating support for an open Internet (The White House 2014, November 10), and in February 2015, the FCC introduced ‘bright line’ rules to ensure net neutrality, classifying broadband ISPs as a ‘telecommunication service’ under the Title II of the Communications Act. The issue was settled, or so it seemed.
In the first months of the Trump Administration’s rule, many aspects of U.S. communications policy were upended, although, with the cornucopia of upheavals occurring at the time, it would be easy for the public to miss what was happening. With its new chairman at the helm, the FCC opted not to bring into effect Internet privacy rules introduced the previous fall that require "high-speed internet providers like AT&T and Comcast to secure their customers’ data against hacking and other unauthorized uses” (Kang 2017, March 1). The FCC acted to do the following:
- undermine features of the Lifeline program which subsidizes the cost of affordable phone and Internet services for low income individuals;
- withdraw FCC support from efforts to hold down the cost of intrastate prison phone calls; and
- scrap a proposal that would allow cable users to save money by buying cable boxes rather than renting them.
Some of these major policy turnarounds were “buried in the agency’s website and not publicly announced, stunning consumer advocacy groups and telecom analysts” (Kang 2017, February 5). The message was clear: the FCC would follow “the Trump administration’s rapid unwinding of government regulations” (Kang 2017, February 5).