Why we support net neutrality and the open Internet

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The public benefits of the World Wide Web and the open Internet beneath it are apparent to billions of people around the world. Net neutrality, the principle that broadband providers must treat all Internet traffic the same regardless of source, is a critical policy that enables those benefits. We strongly support countries enacting strong net neutrality laws and enforcing them when anti-consumer behavior is demonstrated.

Why? Over the years, Sunlight has been a public interest advocate for public understanding of rulemaking processes and has analyzed public comments regarding proposed net neutrality rules submitted to the Federal Communications Commission to inform the public. In 2015, we went a step beyond analysis to direct advocacy, making our position clear: net neutrality is essential for a healthy democracy.

For us, the logic driving that decision is inexorable. We believe an informed public is essential to an accountable democratic government. Throughout our history, we have advocated for public information to be available online so that the public can access to it. In democratic governments, we have access to information laws that give the public the right to access that information.

That’s why we oppose of Internet shutdowns. That’s also why we have supported countries, including the United States, enacting strong net neutrality principles, much like our open data principles. In the age of the Internet, universal public access to public data is essential for healthy democracies in the 21st century.

These net neutrality principles, embraced by the Federal Communications Commission in 2015 and voted into force, are straightforward: no blocking of websites, no throttling of connections, no paid prioritization of content, and transparency into all three practices.

We think it is appropriate for there to be a government regulator that has oversight of Internet service providers. There should be transparency regarding how people are accessing information, sharing information that is now an expectation of the public should not be something that is voluntary.

A decade ago, the above statements would have been regarded as the nonpartisan assessment of recommended good governance around regulatory policy that they are. The waters have been significantly muddied by members of Congress, industry and activists. In some cases we see people saying that net neutrality — or the FCC’s open Internet order that enacted the principles — is about “regulating the Internet,” which is neither helpful to public understanding nor discourse.

As is true of climate change, unfortunately, the issue net neutrality has become politically polarized in the United States, aided by astroturfing campaigns funded by the industrial interests that would be affected by these policies.

We don’t want to see the Internet, the greatest platform for collective action in human history, be turned into a cable box. We want to see open standards and open access to this commons endure.

Access to the Internet has become an essential ability for hundreds and millions of Americans, and billions of people around the world. Other countries or polities, including the European Union, have enacted strong net neutrality rules because they want to make sure that that full access is protected. Internet service providers should have clear expectations of what kind of behaviors are allowable — and which are not — and for disclosure and transparency around them.

Today, it’s too important to simply tear up the FCC’s rules that were formed in the open without there being a set of bills to come in and replace them.

Based upon the history of the behavior of telecommunications companies, we don’t view it as likely that ISPs will behave in consumer-friendly ways of their own volition and self-regulate in the absence of government oversight.

It is true that in cities and countries where there is strong competition from multiple Internet service providers that there are market incentives to be more transparent, to be more ethical, and not to engage in anti-consumer behavior, or to give preferential treatment to companies — large or small — that pay them to prioritize their traffic.

We don’t see anyone credibly arguing that most Americans have real competition for fixed broadband. What we see in cities instead much more closely mirrors a duopoly. In the absence of robust competition, it is important for regulators to give consumers and markets certainty that something as essential as Internet access has bright-line rules oversight.

The public should be able to easily understand what their ISP is doing, what data is collected and how it’s used, and have recourse to easily file complaints with a regulator with the technical capacity and statutory authority to enforce anti-consumer or market behavior using that evidence.

How that actually works out in practice in any given state or country is up to a given governance systems, agencies, and the representatives of the public in a Congress or parliament.

The most meaningful place for debate of the role of the FCC or FTC is the legislative process, with Congress revisiting the Communications Act. Congress should adopt first principles for how and where people should have rights to know what service they’re getting, from cost to speed, what quality of service they’re received, and the expectations about what will happen based upon their interactions.

Sunlight’s core mission is to improve public access to public information. If there is no agency in government entrusted with making sure that Internet service providers are open, transparent and accountable about how they are providing that access to the public, our expectation is that we’ll see a devolvement of the public sphere where people have differential access based on how much money they have. That would be a profound loss for our democracy.

We urge Congress, the FCC and President Donald J. Trump to not only reaffirm the role of an open Internet in American life but to take meaningful steps to improve the state of identity, safety, privacy and oversight of the companies that provide public access to this public good.

We encourage YOU to go to DearFCC.org and tell the FCC that you support strong net neutrality principles in Open Internet Rules.

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  • Mrs.Karen Newsom

    This is not what I have understood “net neutrality” to be. We already have full acess to the internet and it should remain so. There is no need for it in the first place. What “net neutrality” would bring to the internet is the power to control the conversation. For some, this would be government deciding which sites are fake news. Usually, they consider any conservative website to be fake news whereas the opposite is true. I don’t trust the government to regulate the internet any further than it has already.

    • digiphile

      Mrs. Newsom,

      The FCC’s Open Internet rules are already in place: https://www.fcc.gov/consumers/guides/open-internet

      They are not a new policy. What’s being proposed are changes to these rules, which, as the FCC itself still states on its website, as of July 2017, “protect and maintain open, uninhibited access to lawful online content. The rules specifically prohibit:

      Blocking: Broadband providers may not block access to lawful content, applications, services or non-harmful devices.
      Throttling: Broadband providers may not deliberately target some lawful internet traffic to be delivered to users more slowly than other traffic.
      Paid prioritization: Broadband providers may not favor some internet traffic in exchange for consideration of any kind. Internet service providers are also banned from prioritizing content and services of their affiliates.”

      The current rules, which are based upon a reclassification of Internet service providers as common carriers, protect consumers. https://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2017/07/how-title-ii-goes-beyond-net-neutrality-to-protect-internet-users-from-isps/

      They are not “government deciding which sites are fake news” or the FCC instructing an ISP to make a viewpoint-based decision regarding which websites its consumers can access.

      In fact, what the most recent iteration of the Open Internet rules did is to lay out the principles that the FCC would regulate Internet service providers under — including transparency regarding any blocking or throttling of a given service or website, including conservative, progressive, libertarian news outlets.

      • PS2OS2

        Excellent response. I thought the writer of the article could have put more meat into it, though.