The Internet as you know it is under attack. But not by the NSA this time. Instead, by a threat to our old friend, net neutrality.
It’s been awhile since “net neutrality” has been in the news. After all, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) enacted net neutrality rules back in 2010 (called the Open Internet Order). These rules prevented Internet Service Providers (ISPs) from blocking consumer access to the websites and applications of their choice. The roar of outrage on the Internet faded to a whisper. It seemed like the debate was closed.
But since that time, Big Telecom has been fighting to kill these rules and win the right to charge consumers even more to access the Internet. Most recently, in 2011, Verizon filed a lawsuit claiming that the FCC exceeded its authority by enacting these rules. And last month, the DC Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments from Verizon and the FCC.
Net neutrality rules prevent ISPs like Verizon and Comcast from blocking or discriminating against certain websites. Without net neutrality, these companies can charge for faster, more reliable access to websites—either by charging the websites, who will pass that cost onto consumers, or by charging the consumer directly – like on your monthly cable bill.
But there’s even more than innovation and consumer protection at stake – eliminating net neutrality threatens democracy. Today’s voters educate themselves on blogs, and activists organize over social media. So allowing ISPs to block or slow down access to websites that they do not like is tantamount to closing the public square.
Whether Verizon wins or loses in court, the FCC desperately needs a progressive champion to protect Internet users and advocate for consumer rights. Big Telecom is waging warfare in every direction, and the FCC has a lot of work to do to keep this under control.
But there’s one man that stands in the way of all this; Senator Ted Cruz, up to his old tricks again.
President Obama’s nominee for FCC Chairman, Tom Wheeler, hasn’t inspired boundless confidence, but he also hasn’t been able to prove himself. Senator Cruz is blocking the Senate from voting on Wheeler’s nomination, placing a parliamentary hold on the Chairman selection.
The reason that the Republican senator from Texas is holding Internet democracy hostage? He is worried that as Chairman, Wheeler will pursue funding disclosures for political ads from corporations, super PACs, unions, and other outside groups—something the FCC has the authority to do. Senator Cruz is afraid that his political funders will no longer be able to hide their spending behind a shadowy veil.
The telecom policy community has expressed their readiness for Wheeler. Timothy Karr, senior director of strategy at Free Press, a DC-based public interest group, told TIME:
We have a lot of questions about what kind of FCC chairman Tom Wheeler is going to be. But he has been nominated by the president and won the approval of the vast majority of the Senate. So it’s time for Senator Cruz to stop holding the process hostage, and let Wheeler do his job. If Cruz doesn’t like Wheeler, he should just vote against him. But it’s time to put the full FCC back to work.
The FCC has a lot of catching up to do after the 16-day government shutdown, and if confirmed, Wheeler will have a significant backlog of consumer protection issues to address, including net neutrality. But Senator Cruz is waiting for an explicit promise from Wheeler that he won’t give voters the political transparency they are entitled to. Wheeler hasn’t taken a stance on the issue yet, and the Senate Commerce Committee has already voted to send the nomination to the floor for a final vote. But since Senator Cruz isn’t getting his way, he is, yet again, forcing government to a grinding halt.
Photo by Gage Skidmore released under a Creative Commons Share Alike license.