“Net neutrality” is the name given to the rules and regulations that kept the internet free from censorship and content-based discrimination. The rules ensured that powerful internet service providers (ISPs), which provide our access to the internet, could not discriminate in favor of content they like and against content they don’t. In short, regardless of an ISP’s political views or business interests, a customer’s access to lawful internet content could not be sped up, slowed down, or blocked (a further, humorous ACLU explainer on net neutrality, using the hottest hot sauce from the show “Hot Ones,” can be found here).
Unfortunately, despite overwhelming support for net neutrality across the political spectrum, the FCC voted 3-2 to end net neutrality on Dec. 14, 2017. This rollback of internet freedom was led by then FCC Chairman Ajit Pai — a former Verizon lawyer — and was justified in part by 8.5 million comments the FCC received supporting the rollback, all of which were later revealed to have been fraudulently submitted on behalf of the ISP companies.
Response to the loss of net neutrality was strong and swift. The United States Senate voted, via the Congressional Review Act, to reject to FCC’s abandonment of net neutrality (the House of Representatives’ session ended before it could vote). At the state level, nine states, through legislation and/or gubernatorial executive orders, adopted net neutrality rules of their own. But in the end, advocates knew the only way to fully bring back net neutrality was to have it restored by the FCC. That certainly wasn’t going to happen under President Trump and Chairman Pai, so we were forced to wait, patiently, for a change in presidential administrations.
On Jan. 20, 2021, two significant events occurred that re-opened the door for net neutrality. First, Joseph Biden was sworn in as president. Second, following tradition, Ajit Pai resigned as FCC chair, creating a balance-altering vacancy on the FCC. All President Biden needed to do to begin the process of restoring net neutrality was to nominate a fifth FCC commissioner. This didn’t seem like a challenging task; after all, recent prior presidents had filled their FCC vacancies in a matter of days, or in a few months at most. However, more than 200 days since Pai’s resignation, President Biden still has not nominated a new commissioner, making his inaction the longest FCC appointment delay in a half-century.
This delay is not inconsequential. In addition to allowing ISPs to continue to censor the internet, the delay opens up several scenarios in which net neutrality’s restoration could be lost entirely.
The ACLU is committed to restoring net neutrality, and our efforts to do so will not end until President Biden nominates a fifth FCC commissioner and the FCC successfully restores net neutrality to the American people. It’s time for the president to stop gambling with the future of the internet.