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The fight for net neutrality begins again

May 3, 2017
In The News

Ranking Member Frank Pallone, Jr. addressed New America’s Open Technology Institute on the latest efforts by Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Ajit Pai to undermine net neutrality protections. Here are his prepared remarks:

Thank you to the Open Technology Institute for inviting me here today.

The Open Technology Institute has been an important source of data-driven research on some of the most important issues we face today. Issues like privacy, cybersecurity, and broadband access. Thank you for all the work you do.

That’s why it’s such a pleasure to get to speak to you about an issue that is critical to both our economy and our democracy — net neutrality.

Last week, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai — with the backing of Republicans in Congress — proposed a plan to ignore the will of the American people and kill net neutrality. The plan is clear: Sabotage net neutrality by kicking the legal legs out from under it. We can’t let this happen.

At its most basic level, net neutrality means that we, the people, can decide for ourselves what we do online. We decide which videos we watch, which sites we read, and which services we use. Nobody gets to influence that choice: Not the government, and not the companies that run the networks. That’s how the internet in the US has always operated, and that’s how it should be.

Net neutrality ensures it stays that way.

If the Washington Republicans have their way, the consequences will be severe. Their plan will have a chilling influence on our democracy, cut away at our connections with each other, and limit economic opportunities for the future.

I am not sure the Congressional Republicans behind these plans really understand how important the internet is today. One of my Republican colleagues from Wisconsin, Representative Jim Sensenbrenner, was asked at a town hall why he voted to eliminate our internet privacy protections. He didn’t seem too sympathetic. He told his constituents — and I’m quoting now — “nobody’s got to use the Internet.”

Is he serious?

This same kind of thinking may be what’s driving FCC Chairman Pai.

Here’s what they don’t get. The internet is home to some of the most important conversations taking place today. This is not a partisan point or even a political one. Jeopardizing the national dialogue should concern all of us.

The dialogue that happens online is critical for our democracy. For me, the organizing behind Black Lives Matter and the Women’s March was inspirational. But this kind of activism is not limited to the political left. Important conversations on all sides have taken root and grown to prominence online. Even the President was able to energize his followers by using online platforms in new ways.

That’s because the internet is the tool we use to reach across geographic and social boundaries to find people we agree with — and people we don’t. Conversations that start small can quickly grow into important forces of change in national politics.

But now Republicans in Washington want to jeopardize this fundamental freedom. Without the FCC’s net neutrality rules, large corporate interests can begin to choke off conversations they don’t like and they can speed up the ones they do.

This threat is real. The conglomerates that own network infrastructure are increasingly purchasing content like news outlets. And the Trump administration has signaled that it will allow even more of this consolidation. That means that the companies that connect us to the Internet have financial incentives to give preference to the shows they own, the websites they run, and the news they report.

Independent voices — those outside the mainstream — may be most at risk simply because they don’t have an affiliation with the companies that run the internet.

Unfortunately, the broadband companies have more than just financial reasons to choke off independent content — it can also be political. Under Chairman Pai’s plan, nothing stops those in power from pushing broadband companies to censor dissenting voices or unpopular opinions. Even large companies may feel pressure to please those in power out of fear of reprisals.

The threat is not far-fetched. I had my own run-in with this kind of censorship last year. I joined many of my Democratic colleagues in a sit-in on the floor of the House. We were protesting Congress’s inability to pass any meaningful gun safety legislation.

Republican leadership quickly cut off the cameras that provide the video for cable television. They tried to disconnect us from the American people.

But because of the power of the free and open internet, we were able to break through. In a move that would have been impossible just a few years ago, we streamed our own protest live and online.

Now imagine this same situation, but without strong net neutrality protections. The Republican majority that killed the video on television could now pressure broadband companies to block our video online too. And they might succeed — because the companies who control the networks would be caught in the middle. They would have to make a decision without any legal protections.

Now the same people who shut off those cameras are cheering on Chairman Pai’s proposal to take away our open internet.

We have to fight to make sure that doesn’t happen. Because the threat to our democracy and to free speech is too great.

But net neutrality means more than just free speech — it is critical to economic prosperity and to the economic opportunities of the future.

To get a job today, people need to be online.

This is not just a Silicon Valley issue. By the end of President Obama’s term, almost half of new start ups were sprouting in regions outside the top 35 metro areas.

The internet is creating new opportunities not only in the big cities and suburbs, but also in rural America. The jobs of today are either online or can be found online. With a working broadband connection, anyone can work from home, sell their own products online, and connect with companies a world away. The internet is essential for training and applying for new jobs.

I recently had a chance to see this job-creating power of the internet firsthand. I met people running small businesses in Asbury Park back in my district in New Jersey. Everybody I visited — every one — said they needed broadband so they could do what they do. The open internet has been a launching pad for the revitalization of Asbury Park.

These people started small businesses that not only gave them new opportunities, but created jobs for others. It wasn’t just tech entrepreneurs either. From bakers to bike shops, anyone with a new idea could start their own businesses and succeed by going online.

One of the places I visited hosts entrepreneurs that are just starting out. When this place opened less than a decade ago they had 10 members. Now they have more than eleven hundred members. That wouldn’t have happened without a free and open internet.

But these entrepreneurs need access to the same internet — at the same speeds — as large corporate interests. I have heard some people in Washington, including my colleague Representative Marsha Blackburn, suggest that big businesses should be allowed to pay their customers broadband providers to speed up their content. Some people call this paid prioritization, others call it pay-for-play fast lanes.

It’s a bad idea. The internet has been such a powerful tool precisely because even the little guys in Asbury Park can have websites as powerful as the world’s largest corporations. The only limits are their imaginations — not their bank accounts.

Once they pay to plug into the web, they are free to compete with anyone. That’s how the internet has always kept costs for new businesses so low.

But some broadband providers want to change that. They want to charge extra for fast lanes or other advantages to access their subscribers.

So, just imagine for a moment that you’re comparing services from two different companies — one, a well-established company with a lot of money and the other a new service that is just trying to get off the ground. If the well-established company pays your ISP extra, its site will be a lot faster. Think about it — if you are a potential customer deciding which website to visit or app to download, which would you choose? The fast one or the slow one? Personally, I have no patience, so I know where I’ll end up.

Real net neutrality rules stop this from happening. Chairman Pai’s proposal does not.

His proposal would put a new hurdle in front of new and aspiring entrepreneurs like the ones I met in Asbury Park. For too many of them, that will be one obstacle too many.

Don’t be fooled by those who say they support an open internet but also want fast lanes. That’s not net neutrality. If they get their way, they would tear the internet in two. A fast version for those with deep pockets, and a second-class internet for everyone else.

So I keep asking myself: how is that good for the people of Asbury Park? How’s that good for any small community? Without net neutrality, they won’t stand a chance. And we’ll all suffer for it.

The innovative startups of today and tomorrow may simply disappear because they will not be able to compete against the big guys.

That’s why we can’t let this happen — we have to keep the power with people, not big corporations. We can’t let them kill net neutrality.

So what can you do?

Fortunately, we know their playbook. They have no problem getting rid of critical consumer protections in order to give huge handouts to large corporations. Here’s just a couple of examples from the first 100 days:

• First, they claimed to improve our air and water quality by taking away our environmental protections.

• Next, they claimed they were going to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act with something better for everyone. Instead, Trumpcare would strip health care from at least 24 million Americans, cut $1 trillion from Medicare and Medicaid to give $1trillion to the wealthy and large corporations.

• Then, while everyone was distracted by the healthcare fiasco, Washington Republicans claimed to be protecting your sensitive information by giving broadband companies free rein to sell your sensitive information without your permission.

• And now, they say they want to preserve an open internet by killing net neutrality — whatever that means.

Sound familiar? Chairman Pai pays little more than lip service to an open internet while he cuts away the legal underpinnings of net neutrality.

He makes baseless claims that somehow the existing law does not support these protections. That’s just wrong. The court affirmed the rules last year and then again just two days ago. This issue has been settled — net neutrality is the law of the land.

But you wouldn’t know that if you listen to Chairman Pai speak. Last week, Chairman Pai gave the most partisan speech I’ve ever heard from an FCC Chair when he announced his plan to kill net neutrality. Over the course of nearly 25 minutes, Chairman Pai could not even bring himself to utter the words net neutrality.

The truth is, his position has been remarkably consistent. Two years ago, he said net neutrality was a solution in search of a problem. Two months ago, he said net neutrality’s days were numbered. Seven days ago, he announced his plan to kill it.

In fact, the draft proposal that Chairman Pai released suggests that the FCC shouldn’t even enforce the basic bright-line protections like no blocking. He asks whether he should allow loopholes, like paid prioritization and exemptions from data caps for favored content. Quite simply, this is not net neutrality.

This is the first time a Chairman of the FCC — Democrat or Republican — has ever suggested that his own agency shouldn’t have any part in enforcing these basic rights. That is a dramatic turn for the worse from the successful history of the internet.

The truth is, they know that their proposal will be unpopular. They know who it harms. That’s why they are jamming it through before they have five commissioners. That’s why they tell people they can only weigh in during a short window in the middle of summer, when students, small business owners, and everyday Americans are away.

No matter. The Chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Greg Walden, still supports this proposal. That’s not surprising — last Congress he circulated a draft bill with more loopholes than protections.

And the Chairman of our Communications and Technology Subcommittee, Representative Marsha Blackburn, recently told Breitbart News that she wants Chairman Pai to “eliminate net neutrality.” That’s not new for her either. Last Congress, Representative Blackburn introduced a bill that would not only toss out net neutrality, it would have prevented the FCC from ever adopting it again.

Is that what they mean when they say they want Congress to step in?

This is why it’s hard to take seriously any offer to legislate from the people who cheer on Chairman Pai’s efforts to wipe out net neutrality.

I agree with those who say that they are tired of this issue becoming a political football every few years. But we have an easy solution. Simply tell Chairman Pai instead of killing net neutrality, he should simply withdraw his proposal.

But — just like with healthcare — they think that they can inflict enough pain on the American people to force us to sign up for something less than the real deal.

Let me assure you that’s not going to happen. We are not going to be forced into a bad deal.

We will not leave the American people behind.

The fight is not over. No one believed we could stop them on healthcare, but so far we have thanks to American people voicing their strong opposition to Trumpcare We must do that same thing on net neutrality.

So what now? Talk to your friends — even ones with different political beliefs. Talk to your parents and grandparents and neighbors who may not understand this issue. Education can work. Public outcry can work. It has saved the open internet before.

Tell everyone to make some noise. Write in to the FCC. Call your representatives in Congress.

Go to their town halls. I promise you — this make a difference.

The path to victory is still uphill. None of us can win this battle alone. But when we come together we can still stop the moneyed interests here in Washington.

We can save the internet.