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Why Net Neutrality Can’t Wait

Woman helps to dismantle a large alarm clock display that reads "Net Neutrality Wake Up Call" from the stage after a protest in front of the FCC in Washington, DC.
To close the digital divide, restore net neutrality.
Woman helps to dismantle a large alarm clock display that reads "Net Neutrality Wake Up Call" from the stage after a protest in front of the FCC in Washington, DC.
Chad Marlow,
Senior Policy Counsel,
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July 9, 2021

On July 8, as part of an extensive executive order covering a range of technology related issues, President Joe Biden wrote that he "encourages the FCC to restore Net Neutrality rules undone by the prior administration." While President Biden’s statement of support for net neutrality is welcome, it rings somewhat hollow given that his failure to appoint a fifth FCC commissioner is the sole reason efforts to restore net neutrality are stalled in the first place.

In light of the ongoing public health and economic crisis, it’s no surprise that restoring net neutrality wasn’t at the top of the Biden administration’s to-do list on January 20, 2021. But six months into his administration, it is considerably less excusable that all President Biden has done to restore a free and open internet to the American people is issue an executive order stating he supports the concept. An overwhelming majority of Americans across the political spectrum support the internet’s anti-corporate censorship rules known as net neutrality. COVID-19 has only emphasized how valuable our internet is, and how critical it is that it remains free, open, and accessible to all.

If President Biden really cares about net neutrality, he can begin the process of restoring it through the simple act of nominating a pro-net neutrality commissioner to fill a current vacancy on the Federal Communications Commission, which oversees our internet infrastructure. Once in place, a pro-net neutrality majority on the FCC will have a clear path to restoring the protections lost under the Trump administration.

It has been three and a half years since former FCC chair and Verizon employee Ajit Pai eliminated net neutrality protections that protect our right to access a free and open internet. Net neutrality was put into place specifically to ensure that internet service providers (ISPs) cannot block or slow down users’ access to internet content it disapproves of for business or political reasons, or to speed up access to content it favors. But since the loss of net neutrality, powerful ISPs like Verizon and Comcast have been free to do just that — and they have. When we talk about net neutrality we are not talking about hypothetical scenarios or what-ifs. We are already living the very real consequences of its repeal. Here are some examples of how ISPs are violating our rights, right now:

Tampering with speeds

  • Sprint is slowing traffic to Skype, which is owned by its competitor, Microsoft.
  • The largest telecom companies are slowing internet traffic to and from popular apps like YouTube and Netflix.

Playing favorites with data caps

  • AT&T is openly advertising that cellular customers can stream the company’s DirecTV Now product without it counting against monthly data caps. Meanwhile, all of the competing video services like Sling TV, Hulu, YouTube TV, Netflix, or Amazon Prime count against AT&T data caps — and video can quickly chew through a monthly data plan’s download allotment. AT&T’s behavior is almost a pure textbook example of why net neutrality rules were put into place — to stop ISPs from putting competitor’s products at a disadvantage. AT&T is the biggest cellular provider in the country and this creates a huge advantage for DirecTV Now. All of the major cellular carriers are doing something similar in allowing some video to not count against the monthly data cap, but AT&T is the only one pushing their own product.

Throttling bandwidth and network traffic

  • A study led by Northeastern University and the University of Massachusetts Amherst found that internet service providers are “giving a fixed amount of bandwidth — typically something in the range of one and a half megabits per second to four megabits per second — to video traffic, but they don’t impose these limits on other network traffic.” This slowing down of internet speeds is called throttling, and according to researcher Dave Choffnes, “nearly every U.S. cell phone provider” is doing it.
  • Verizon has been throttling County Fire, the fire department charged with responding to California wildfires. "This throttling has had a significant impact on our ability to provide emergency services,” says Fire Chief Anthony Bowden. “Verizon imposed these limitations despite being informed that throttling was actively impeding County Fire's ability to provide crisis-response and essential emergency services."

Orchestrating “free” giveaways

  • Verizon FiOS recently began giving free Netflix for a year to new broadband customers. AT&T also started giving out free HBO to new customers last year. This practice is more subtle than the cellular carrier practice of blocking or throttling content. One of the purposes of net neutrality was for ISPs to not discriminate against web traffic. By giving away free video services, the landline broadband companies are promoting specific web services over competitors. Smaller, start up ISP providers who don’t have large media services to give away for free are placed at a disadvantage, even though their cost or service may be superior.

The digital divide between those with broadband internet access and those without — disproportionately people of color, rural, and low-income — has never been more stark than it has been during the pandemic, as schools, health care providers, jobs, and other everyday necessities have moved online. As such, broadband access has rightly been a focal point of the American Jobs Plan and the latest COVID relief package. But we need to talk about what broadband access really means. If ISPs are dictating what content we can access, then a subscription to broadband service is considerably less meaningful. To fulfill its purpose, the internet must remain free and open. That means we need to restore net neutrality now.

Net neutrality is overwhelmingly popular across the political spectrum, and for good reason: it benefits everyone. The only ones who lose by restoring net neutrality are the ISPs trying to turn a profit off selling our right to access information. ISPs know they face an uphill battle in garnering much public support. Last month, it came out that ISPs submitted 8.5 million fake comments in support of the Trump administration’s repeal of net neutrality in 2017. When you have to invent people who support your agenda, you’ve already lost in the public arena.

Nobody would argue that President Biden hasn’t had his work cut out for him since day one of his administration, but at this point it is fair to ask why he seems content to be moving at a glacial pace. When the ability to restore the free and open internet is as easy as it is for this president, and the best he can do 170 days into his administration is express general support for net neutrality, his commitment to the effort feels half-hearted at best.

Mr. President: If you really care about restoring net neutrality for the American people, it’s time to take real action and appoint a fifth FCC commissioner immediately.

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