Why Net Neutrality Advocates Remain Optimistic

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Worried about net neutrality ? Call your senator.

“Advocates need to lean in,” US Representative Anna Eshoo (D-California) told a panel about net neutrality Thursday at Stanford. “The Congress is not a proactive institution. Congress moves when it’s pushed from the outside.”

Eshoo and her co-panelists, Federal Communications Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, Reddit CEO Steven Huffman, and Stanford law professor Barbara van Schewick, remained doggedly optimistic about the future of net neutrality in the United States. Despite strong opposition from the majority of the FCC , Republican lawmakers, and President Trump, who likely will veto any Democrat-backed net neutrality bills, the panel members urged the audience to action. “There is great power in us,” said Rosenworcel, one of two FCC members who in 2017 voted against repealing the Obama-era rules that prohibited internet service providers from intentionally slowing or blocking web traffic. “I think the FCC got it wrong,” she said, “But I refuse to be pessimistic about it.”

It would seem that public support is on their side. An October poll by Morning Consult showed that 61 percent of Democrats and 57 percent of Republicans support net neutrality. “It’s pitched to the American people as a political issue but the only people it’s political for is the politicians,” said Huffman, who noted that net neutrality is the rare issue that nearly all Reddit users agree on. “There are plenty of things to argue about but this just isn’t one of them.”

Despite that popular support, the future of net neutrality remains unclear. Eshoo confidently predicted the Save the Internet Act, which would restore the 2015 rules, would pass. That legislation was approved by the House in April, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell pronounced it “dead on arrival” and has yet to bring it up for a vote in the Senate.


The WIRED Guide to Net Neutrality

The FCC majority says its policies have helped extend broadband internet service to more Americans. On Wednesday the agency released a report showing that the number of Americans without access to a broadband connection dropped by 18 percent to 21.3 million in 2017, from 26.1 million in 2016. “This report shows that our approach is working,” said Chair Ajit Pai, who believes net neutrality harms consumers by discouraging internet providers from investing in their networks.

Critics, including Rosenworcel, say the FCC’s report is inaccurate and uses bad methodology that doesn’t truly capture whether or not broadband is accessible. She says the FCC considers all the people in a census block to have access to broadband if there is one subscriber in the census block. Other studies have called the FCC’s findings into question. Microsoft looked at Americans’ internet use, rather than simply whether access was available. Its study found that 162 million Americans are not using the internet at broadband speed, suggesting that the FCC’s number is far too low. In an interview, Rosenworcel says that the agency has acknowledged there are problems with its data but published the report anyway. She said that using the numbers to conclude the US has adequate broadband coverage “feels like fraud.”

Rosenworcel thinks the FCC should restore net neutrality by invoking a provision of federal law that allows the agency to take action if broadband is not being deployed on a “reasonable and timely basis.” Instead, she said the report signals that the agency is doubling down on its opposition to net neutrality. In a time when every part of our society, from small businesses to school children, rely on daily internet access, Rosenworcel says the agency should be using every tool in its arsenal to narrow the digital divide. “Why would you make the choice not to use this when it’s available to us?” she said.

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