At a time of crippling political division, the recent Federal Communications Commission (FCC) vote on its initiative called “Restoring Internet Freedom” provides a rare opportunity for cooperation across party lines.
That’s because 83 percent of Americans (including 75 percent of Republicans) disagree with the FCC, according to a poll conducted by researchers at the University of Maryland. The poll shows that, when presented with arguments from both sides of the issue, Americans overwhelmingly support “net neutrality,” a policy that went into full effect in 2015 before being reversed by the FCC on Dec. 14.
Members of Congress should heed this rare bipartisan consensus and overturn the FCC’s decision.
Net neutrality is the principle that all information on the internet should be treated equally by internet service providers (ISPs) and be freely accessible to consumers. As a policy, it prevented Charter Spectrum, Comcast, AT&T and other ISPs from favoring, restricting or blocking our access to specific websites. It also stops them from allowing or forcing certain companies to pay extra for faster internet service. Under the new rules, ISPs no longer face these limitations.
The FCC’s repeal of net neutrality has garnered such strong opposition mainly because it gives ISPs the freedom to charge more for access to certain aspects of the internet, or even to promote websites they own by blocking access to competitors.
This is not a purely hypothetical scenario, as AT&T briefly blocked FaceTime on Apple devices for certain customers in 2012. Critics fear that while Google, Facebook and other large corporations would be able to pay more to offer faster service to consumers, smaller companies would be forced to offer a slower product than their larger rivals and would risk being driven out of business. Another main concern is that some consumers could be priced out of access to parts of the internet that they currently use at no extra cost.
Opponents of net neutrality argue that it is a burdensome government regulation that stifles innovation and discourages the spread of internet service to underserved areas. They contend that existing public disclosure requirements for ISPs are sufficient for them to be held accountable by consumers in the free market.
In a competitive free market we would, in fact, be able to punish an ISP for blocking or restricting our favorite websites by switching to a different company that offers better service. The trouble is, when it comes to ISPs, most Americans have very few options. Most of us are lucky if we even have a choice between two companies that provide high- speed internet. As long as ISPs maintain monopolies in our local communities, there is very little that can stop them from restricting access or raising prices.
This severe lack of competition among ISPs is at the core of why net neutrality is necessary. Federal, state and local governments must act to encourage more ISPs to enter the market, but until there is real competition we need regulations to preserve internet freedom as we know it.
The FCC vote is not the end of this debate. Democratic senators are planning to introduce legislation to erase the FCC’s new policy under the Congressional Review Act, and a number of state attorneys general have announced their intention to file lawsuits to block its implementation. While there was a congressional letter supporting the FCC, it was signed by fewer than half of the Republicans in the House of Representatives. Some Republican lawmakers have even begun to speak out in support of net neutrality. While this opposition (or lack of support) does not come close to reflecting the full 75 percent of Republican voters who are against the FCC decision, it does suggest that bipartisan cooperation is possible.
America is a nation so divided that bipartisan agreement on anything is cause for celebration. When it comes to net neutrality, we have more than agreement, we have a consensus among 83 percent of Americans. While reversing the FCC vote is not a solution to the lack of competition among ISPs, it is a necessary step to protect consumers in the meantime. Congress should take that step.
Max Samarov is director of research and campus strategy for StandWithUs. This article represents his personal views.