copyright 2018, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut
, No. 58, winter, 2017-2018

The ongoing U.S. struggle for net neutrality

by Lyell Davies

Most of the time, decision-making about U.S. communications policy takes place without scrutiny by the general public. Not so in 2017 when, reversing this tendency, Internet net neutrality became the focus of widespread public attention, leading to mass popular organizing and activism on its behalf. The unprecedented scale of this effort indicates the presence of a growing and ever more active communications-policy focused movement in the US. The concept behind net neutrality is simple. It means that when we go online we can search for and freely find whatever we seek, without broadband ISPs such as Verizon, Comcast, Time Warner Cable, or AT&T having the ability to decide what content is available to us, or to favor some content while slowing the delivery of others. Since its widespread adoption of the Internet by the U.S. general public during the 1990s, the concept of net neutrality has been broadly embraced, and the Internet has, for the most part, been operated in a way that upholds it.

But over the years, broadband ISPs have not been required to uphold net neutrality on their networks. As new ways to monetize our Internet use are being developed by social media companies and other business interests, the absence of net neutrality rules offers broadband ISPs ways to create new revenue streams for their businesses at the expense of Internet users’ experiences. It was therefore of far reaching importance that in February 2015 the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) introduced Open Internet rules that mandate net neutrality; a move that The New York Times called “perhaps the biggest policy shift since the Internet became a reality” (Weisman 2015). The FCC’s 2015 decision did not come out of thin air. The issue had been debated and contested by policy makers, ISPs, and communications rights activists for over a decade. More pointedly, the ruling came about in response to a mass popular mobilization in favor of net neutrality, driven by communications rights and consumer organizations, Internet edge providers,[1] [open endnotes in new window] and millions of engaged Internet users.

Even before President Donald J. Trump’s inauguration, communications rights advocates began to prepare for a new round in the fight for net neutrality. Trump offered no coherent stance on communications policy during his presidential campaign, but for policy observers the position his administration would likely take seemed clear. Clues included his opposition to government regulation of industry, as well as the fact that the 2015 ruling was backed by the Obama Administration—making it a likely target for repeal within the partisan culture war of present day U.S. politics. Following his inauguration, Trump promoted Republican FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai to serve as the commission’s chairman. A former Verizon lawyer, from the outset Pai stated that he sought to repeal the FCC’s Open Internet rules (The New York Times 2016, December 16). In response, communication rights activism surged in 2017 as millions of people sent emails or placed calls to regulators or elected officials, met with representatives, attended rallies, or took to the streets or sidewalks in protest.

The effort provides an important illustration of a popular mass mobilization targeting U.S. communications policy—the government rules that regulate media and communication industries. Efforts of this kind are not new to U.S. life, and antecedents for current communications activism can be found in the radio reform movement of the 1920s and 1930s, or in civil rights era campaigns to make broadcasters accountable to communities of color. But the scale of the 2014-2015 and 2017 net neutrality mobilizations are unsurpassed in scale in the history of U.S. communication rights activism. These efforts demonstrate that mass public engagement with communications policy is possible, and suggest a growing public expectation that electronic media communication, which has so deeply penetrated every aspect of our lives, should serve democracy and justice rather than undermine it.

In the account that follows I briefly describe what is at stake with regard to net neutrality and an open Internet. Drawing on the work of Internet scholars and theorists, I consider what the Internet could become if net neutrality ceases to exist. I then place the present struggle for net neutrality in an historical context by describing some of the antecedents for the present mobilization, as well as how communications activism in the U.S. has been on an upswing for the last two decades. Finally, I provide a sketch of the character of the mass popular mobilization that came together in support of net neutrality and an open Internet during 2017.

What’s at stake?

The term net neutrality was coined by Tim Wu to describe a condition where all content carried on the networks operated by broadband ISPs is treated the same way (2003). With net neutrality in operation, users can go where they want on the Internet, entrepreneurs are free to make new products or services available over the Internet, and broadband ISPs are not allowed to favor any particular Internet traffic. As Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, argues,

“Net neutrality maintains that if I have paid for an Internet connection at a certain quality, say, 300 Mbps, and you have paid for that quality, then our communications should take place at that quality. Protecting this concept would prevent a big ISP from sending you video from a media company it may own at 300 Mbps but sending video from a competing media company at a slower rate. That amounts to commercial discrimination... What if your ISP made it easier for you to connect to a particular online shoe store and harder to reach others? That would be powerful control. What if the ISP made it difficult for you to go to Web sites about certain political parties, or religions, or sites about evolution?” (2010:84).

Internet innovator Vinton Cerf argues that from the outset the Internet’s great success has been its openness. He argues, “The Internet was designed to maximize user choice and innovation, which has led directly to an explosion in consumer benefits;” its design “allow for the decentralized and open Internet that we have come to expect” (Cerf 2006, February 7). The FCC’s 2015 Open Internet ruling, states:

“Any person engaged in the provision of broadband Internet access service… shall not unreasonably interfere with or unreasonably disadvantage (i) end users’ ability to select, access, and use broadband Internet access service or the lawful Internet content, applications, services, or devices of their choice, or (ii) edge providers’ ability to make lawful content, applications, services, or devices available to end users” (FCC 2015, March 12: 9).

As an issue, net neutrality pits two competing views of the role of communication in our society, and the conduct of communication industries against each other. On the one side, there is a corporatist belief that the communications arena is a business like any other, and that media companies are experts on what is best for their industry so they should be left to run it as they see fit with minimal government regulation or public oversight. After all, so this argument goes, the public uses the services these corporations provide, so the public interest must be being served. On the other side, there is the belief that an ability to communicate and access information is an integral feature of the life, and should not be left entirely in the hands of self-interested, for-profit corporations. In the United States, opposition to corporate control of communications is commonly articulated in relation to democratic processes, with the argument made that the free circulation of diverse ideas and opinions is the lifeblood of a democracy.[2] This view has been championed by the nonprofit organizations engaged in the struggle for net neutrality. Drawing on deep expertise regarding the role of communications in society, these organizations identify communication rights as a necessary precondition for the exercise of the rights enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, informed participation in public life, and the attainment of social equality and justice.

Many precedents exist for net neutrality. New York State statutes for the operation of the telegraph from 1848 require that telegraph companies transmit all messages “with impartiality and good faith”, and “in the order in which they are received” (Nonnenmacher 2001:34). Railroads, pipelines, and shipping companies have been governed by similar ‘common carrier’ rules. Present day telephony offers a contemporary illustration of common carrier in operation. When an individual places a phone call, the telephone company must link the caller to the number they have dialed, not send them to another destination or interfere with what is said during the caller’s conversation. This is much like Internet net neutrality. Broadband ISPs provide a network for carrying content to users, and with net neutrality rules in place they cannot interfere with that content. Indeed, the 2015 ruling for an open Internet designated broadband ISPs as a ‘telecommunications service’ under the FCC’s Title II rules, which govern phone calls.

In many countries, government rules require net neutrality, and the high level of public engagement on the issue suggests that the concept is widely favored by the U.S. public. While some conservative news sources have tried to paint net neutrality as a ‘liberal’ issue (Varadarajan 2017, May 19), the free speech principles that net neutrality upholds can be seen as benefiting all people in the United States, irrespective of their political views. With some notable exceptions,[3] up to the present broadband ISPs have generally operated their networks in a manner that upholds net neutrality, but they were not required to do so until the FCC’s 2015 ruling. This has led net neutrality’s critics, including FCC chairman Pai, to argue that this regulation is a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist (FCC 2014, February 19). Further, Pai argues that the 2015 rules stifled investment in broadband and the deployment of new services by ISPs. His critics refute these arguments, arguing instead, “online investment and innovation boomed with those protections firmly in place” (Free Press 2017, December 14). Pai has commonly stated that the Title II rules that underlie the FCC’s Open Internet ruling are out-of-date, “Depression-Era regulations" unsuited to the digital age (Reardon 2017, February 7). The techno-determinism that underlies this argument ignores that the intent of earlier FCC rulings may be as valid today as they ever where, since the values that underlie U.S. democracy do not change with the coming or going of particular communications platforms.

For people who struggle to understand what the Internet might become if net neutrality becomes a thing of the past, key Internet thinkers offer insight. Lawrence Lessig and Robert W. McChesney argue that without net neutrality the Internet will become a more curated environment, with broadband ISPs and other moneyed interests deciding what’s available to users. They state:

“Without net neutrality, the Internet would start to look like cable TV. A handful of massive companies would control access and distribution of content, deciding what you get to see and how much it costs” (Lessig & McChesney 2006, June 8).

On this theme readers of Jump Cut should be mindful that this free and readily accessible online journal is a small not-for-profit edge provider of a kind that could become less accessible (or even inaccessible) in a pay-as-you-go, post-net-neutrality world. The politically engaged readership of the journal will also know that the organizations or social movements they support or belong to rely on an open Internet for information sharing, to support organizing efforts, and to mobilize constituents towards action. As media justice advocates Malkia A. Cyril and Joe Torres argue,

“[P]rotecting the Net Neutrality rules that keep the internet open is more critical than ever. As authoritarianism rises, digital free speech can ensure our opposition to authoritarianism also rises” (2017, March 16).

“The cycle”

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.[4] 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).[5] 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.[6] 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:

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). Noting Pai’s friendliness to the telecommunications industry, the Editorial Board of The New York Times stated,

“Congress created the F.C.C. to help all Americans obtain access to communication services without discrimination and at fair prices. Mr. Pai’s approach does exactly the opposite” (2017, February 10).

In early 2017, senior Democratic senators indicated that they support net neutrality and expect a major fight if Republicans try to dismantle it (Reardon 2017, February 7). In response to the developing threat to net neutrality, communication rights advocates began to mobilize a national campaign on the issue as they had in 2014-2015. With the organizations active in the earlier fight providing leadership and infrastructure, the campaign quickly reconnected with a base of supporters. Using the campaign slogan “Team Internet”, supporters coalesced into “a decentralized group of activists who are working together on our shared goal of saving Net Neutrality” (Team Internet Event Host Guide 2017). With activism on the upswing, on April 20 protestors attended an event at the FCC where Chairman Pai was speaking. To the tune of Rick Astley’s 1987 song “Never Gonna Give You Up”, the protestors “rickrolled” Pai, singing, “Never gonna give you up, Net Neu-tral-ity, never gonna run around and hurt you,” until they were ejected from the building by police and Homeland Security officers.

In May, the FCC formally announced its plan “to reverse the FCC’s 2015 decision to impose heavy-handed Title II utility-style government regulation on Internet service providers,” by returning ISPs to the status of Title I “information provider” and thereby exempting them from net neutrality rules (2017, May 18). At a rally outside the FCC on May 18, the organization Free Press announced, “we’ve already reached one million comments and signatures in the fight to build a massive Net Neutrality coalition once again” (Forester 2017, May 20). Also by May, a quarter of the U.S. Senate had signed on to “a series of powerful letters calling out Chairman Pai on his terrible plan to scrap the Net Neutrality rules” (Floberg 2017, May 9). Among these were women senators who argued that “Net neutrality is particularly important to women,” especially to those operating women-owned businesses or seeking to bring about positive change in their communities (Floberg 2017, May 9).

In July, Team Internet organized a national day of action on the issue, on which the public was called on to submit comments opposing the FCC’s plan to the FCC and Congress. The day broke records for net neutrality activism, with five million emails and 124,000 phone calls directed to Congress, and two million more emails sent to the FCC (Cuthbert 2017, July 13). This is triple the largest number of comments submitted in a single day during the 2014-2015 campaign (Cuthbert 2017, July 13). Coalition partner CMJ announced, “Some estimates even report that social media posts about the Day of Action reached a potential 2.44 billion people!” (2017, July 14). The racial justice-focused CMJ states that on the day of action “thousands of people of color and civil rights leaders raised our voices... We’ll keep joining with allies of all kinds across the lines of difference to fight for our digital voice” (2017, July 14). By the end of July over ten million comments had been filed with the FCC, many more than during the campaign for net neutrality two years earlier (Reardon, 2017, July 20).[7]

Driving these efforts were communications rights organizations—such as CMJ, Demand Progress, EFF, Fight for the Future, Free Press, and Public Knowledge. They were joined by civil society organizations including Color of Change, Common Cause, Creative Commons, Greenpeace, NARAL, the National Hispanic Media Coalition, New America, Rock the Vote and the Women’s March. Among the edge providers involved were: Airbnb, Amazon, CREDO, eBay, Etsy, Expedia, Facebook, Kickstarter, Mozilla, Netflix, OKCupid, reddit, Soundcloud, Spotify, Tinder, Twitter, Vimeo and Yelp. Illustrating something of the varied constituencies involved in the campaign, The New York Times reports that some of the “most vocal and committed activity may have come from generation internet, the digitally savvy teenagers in middle and high school who grew up with an open internet” (Kang 2017, December 20). For these young people, “a dry issue that has often been hard to understand outside of policy circles in Washington has become a cause to rally around” (Kang 2017, December 20). Other commentators noted that support for net neutrality crosses party lines, and following the release of the FCC’s plan “a post on net neutrality raced to the top of Reddit’s NASCAR forum becoming the subreddit’s most popular post ever—by a long shot” (Coren 2017, November 28). Free Press’s Craig Aaron argues,

“We’re witnessing a huge political shift on this issue. Public awareness has never been higher. And the politicians and press are paying attention” (2017, December 8).

Created to represent the public in matters of communications governance, the FCC’s mission is to ensure that all members of U.S. society have access to communication platforms, and for a fair price. Critics of the FCC argue that historically it has too often advanced “the interests of the various corporate sectors it oversees,” rather than serving the public interest (Chester 2007:48). Patricia Aufderheide argues that “[t]he public is endlessly invoked in communications policy, but rarely is it consulted or even defined” (1999: 5). She reports that over the years the FCC’s commissioner have sometimes acted “as allies of and… protectors of the weak and vulnerable in society,” but the agency has not fulfilled its public service mission as well as it should (Aufderheide 1999: 6). In response to the millions of comments submitted to the FCC in support of net neutrality in 2017, Pai stated that the numbers were not paramount for him, and it would be quality of the submissions not the quantity that would be decisive in the FCC’s decision on net neutrality. One journalist noted that this stance could be “an excuse to ignore the overwhelming millions of comments in support of net neutrality in favor of few well-written filings by Comcast and the like.” (Kastrenakes 2017, August 31).

On November 22 the FCC presented the deceptively titled, net neutrality-ending “Restoring Internet Freedom” order, to be confirmed by a vote by the five FCC commissioners in mid December. Critics of the order immediately countered that it ignored “the voices of millions of Internet users who weighed in to support those protections” (McSherry, Walsh, Stoltz, & Falcon 2017, November 27). Free Press reports that in the week following the release of the order over 600,000 calls were placed to members of Congress through the Battle for the Net’s automated call-tool; so many that “some Capitol Hill staffers have asked us to make the calls stop” (Martínez 2017, December 1). On December 7, in opposition to the FCC’s action, more than 700 protest actions were staged in 50 states, “the largest public outpouring of support for Net Neutrality and internet freedom ever” (Aaron 2017, December 8). The following week, immediately before the order was to be voted on by the five FCC commissioners, protesters rallied outside the commission’s Washington office building. Among the speakers at the assembly were Democratic FCC Commissioners Mignon Clyburn and Jessica Rosenworcel. The latter stated, “I’m bothered by the incredible contempt this agency has shown the American people who have turned out in droves to make one thing clear: They want Net Neutrality” (Kroin 2017, December 15).

The future

On December 14, the FCC voted by a 3-2 margin, split along Republican-Democrat party lines, to adopt the “Restoring Internet Freedom” order. In a dissenting statement, Commissioner Clyburn stated that with the “fiercely-spun, legally-lightweight, consumer-harming, corporate-enabling Destroying Internet Freedom Order” the FCC is “abdicating responsibility to protect the nation’s broadband consumers… handing the keys to the Internet… over to a handful of multi-billion dollar corporations” (2017, December 14). She concluded her statement with,

“[W]e will look back on today’s vote as an aberration, a temporary deviation from the bipartisan path, that has served us so well. I don’t know whether this plan will be vacated by a court, reversed by Congress, or overturned by a future Commission. But I do believe that its days are numbered” (Clyburn 2017, December 14).

In the short period that separates these last events from the time of writing this article, the issue of net neutrality has not receded from public discourse. Shortly after the FCC’s ruling, initiatives were afoot to press Congress to reverse the FCC’s move, and Free Press, Public Knowledge and the National Hispanic Media Coalition promised legal action on the matter (Kang 2017, December 14). Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer pledged to bring a bill to the Senate floor to undo the repeal of the 2015 Open Internet rules, and representatives in the House, Senate, and in state capitols indicated they intend to take steps to keep net neutrality (Free Press 2017, December 15). Additional action is certain in the months to come.

Communication policies are always in flux, and vigilance and a willingness to actively engage with them and to encourage others to do likewise is the order of the day, every day. The 2014-2015 campaign for net neutrality illustrates that effective coalition building by communication rights activists, engaged members of the public and other constituents can press those who regulate communication industries to enact policies that serve the public. The effort in 2017 to preserve net neutrality illustrates the magnitude of the challenge at hand when it comes to promoting communication rights and fostering democratic media in the US. The issue of net neutrality is making millions of people aware of how communications policy is written, and how decision makers can be challenged if they ignore the public’s wishes. Many among these individuals have demonstrated a willingness to take action by submitting comments to the FCC or their elected officials; airing their views in social media forums; attending rallies or engaging in acts of online or real-world protest; or by joining and supporting the network of communications rights organizations that serve as the backbone of “democratic media activism”[8] within a movement for communications rights in contemporary U.S. society.


1. This term denotes the companies or other entities that provide content, applications, or other online services over the Internet. Companies such as Amazon, Facebook, Google, or YouTube are among the most prominent edge providers, but the term also applies to the tens of thousands of other operations, large or small, that provide Internet content. The FCC states, the term edge provider is used because operations such as these “generally operate at the edge rather than the core of the network”—the latter being the domain of ISPs, transit providers, and related entities (2010, December 23). [return to text]

2. In contrast, in the European context there is a greater willingness to argue that an ability to freely send and receive messages through electronic media channels is a fundamental human right and need, rather than a mechanism of democracy.

3. See, for instance, the Associated Press’s 2007 investigation of Comcast’s slowing of BitTorrent users’ data.

4. A survey in 1926 “determined that approximately one-half of U.S. stations were operated to generate publicity for the owner’s primary enterprise, while one-third were operated by nonprofit groups for eleemosynary purposes. Only 4.3 percent of U.S. stations were characterized as being ‘commercial broadcasters,’ while a mere one-quarter of U.S. stations permitted the public to purchase airtime for its own use” (McChesney 1993:15).

5. “The cycle” is not limited only to whether or not net neutrality exists. In recent years our Internet experience has dramatically changed in ways that illustrate that “the cycle” is already well underway—changes that would likely be accelerated and deepened by an end to net neutrality. Eli Pariser argues, “What was once an anonymous medium where anyone could be anyone… is now a tool for soliciting and analyzing our personal data” (2011: 6). Social media companies seek to hold our online attention at all costs, so our "eyeballs" can be sold to advertisers. Following revelations about the influence of fake news and foreign-originated misinformation during the 2016 election, we have witnessed in recent months widespread public and governmental concern about how our online experience has evolved—particularly with regard to the role social media companies play as information brokers. It is troubling that at a time when there is a growing awareness that social media companies are in need of effective oversight, moves are afoot to dismantle net neutrality, thereby allowing ISPs to become equally irresponsible information brokers—as they put profits ahead of U.S. society’s need for open, democratic and democracy-serving communication.

6. In the mass campaign mobilized in support of net neutrality during 2017, the involvement of the biggest Internet companies was more subdued than in the past and “Instead of forceful pleas from their executives, like those in years past on this issue,” they largely expressed their opposition to Pai’s plan “through their trade group, the Internet Association” (Kang 2017, November 28). In their place, more recent start-ups, including such well-known ones as Airbnb, Twitter and Reddit took an active role in warning regulators that an end to net neutrality would hurt innovation and the economy (Kang 2017, November 28).

7. When the period for submitting public comments to the FCC closed in August 2017, over 20 million comments had been submitted. However, while legitimate submissions overwhelmingly showed support for net neutrality, the FCC’s comments system had been targeted by a “spambot” that sent massive numbers of identical anti-net neutrality comments “using the identities of people who have no idea their names have been attached to these comments” (Cox 2017, May 10).

8. Media scholars Robert A. Hackett and William K. Carroll propose the term “democratic media activism” (DMA) to describe all strands of communications activism. They define DMA as a “force of media democratization, which comprises efforts to change media messages, practices, institutions and contexts (including state communication policies) in a direction that enhances democratic values and subjectivity, as well as equal participation in public discourse and societal decision-making” (2006:84).


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