This is a time for celebration. The FCC’s February 26th vote to enact strong, new open internet rules represents the culmination of at least 13 years of hard work, and one of the most significant and unadulterated public interest policy victories in decades – in any field.
What did we just win?
Net neutrality is a foundational principle of the internet. Just as the First Amendment protects free speech from government interference in the United States, the FCC’s new open internet rules will prevent corporations who own telecommunications networks from blocking or tampering with their users’ communications.
After a January, 2014 court decision struck down the FCC’s first attempt at open internet guidelines, the FCC had several options for re-instituting rules to protect the rights of internet users. The strongest of these approaches relies on reclassifying internet service providers as “telecommunications services” under Title II of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, but the FCC’s was initially reluctant to take such a strong step. Even as recently as October, it seemed likely that the agency’s approach would rely on Section 706 – a useful provision for broadband access and a range of other important issues, but likely not strong enough to support real net neutrality rules that would stand up to a new court challenge.
Over the course of 2014 and early 2015, a coalition of public interest groups engaged the general public in submitting more than 4 million net neutrality comments to the FCC – the most the agency had ever received on a particular issue. These comments were overwhelmingly supportive of strong rules, and frequently referenced the Title II approach by name. The drive for comment submissions was bolstered by a full-fledged campaign that included live and online protests, discussions with FCC commissioners and staff, legal analysis, petitions, and a major push to educate policymakers and the general public.
In November, President Obama publicly asked the FCC to ensure strong net neutrality rules by reclassifying internet service providers under Title II. But even then, it was not clear that FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler would follow this advice, as the FCC is an independent expert agency. Wheeler finally announced his net neutrality plan in a WIRED article on February 4th, and the FCC vote on the 26th made it official: real net neutrality is here to stay.
Why are we SO HAPPY?
The rules we establish today will not only govern the communications infrastructure we currently use, but set the precedents and expectations for future technology. Firmly establishing such an important principle of digital rights could help win debates about communications rights for decades, if not centuries.
And the net neutrality rules really are excellent. There are a few remaining issues to clear up – most notably the allowance of zero-rating – but open internet advocates got the vast majority of our requests.
The new open internet rules are also a pure public interest victory, against corporate opponents with tremendous political power. Against the enormous lobbying and legal budgets of corporations like Comcast and Verizon, only a few private companies took a stand for net neutrality – most notably Tumblr, who donated the proceeds from their store to MDF’s Open Internet Defense Fund. Tech giants like Facebook and Google essentially sat out the fight.
How did we win?
The secret to this victory was a deeply diverse collaboration, actively coordinating activities to achieve the best possible outcome for an issue that affects the lives of billions of people. The net neutrality campaign put community media justice organizations at the same table as artists, insider DC attorneys, civil rights advocates, online organizers, and technologists. Virtually all of MDF’s grantees contributed in some way, and several of them were major leaders in the campaign. Craig Aaron of Free Press makes this point eloquently in the Huffington Post, and includes a list of the organizations that played a major role.
MDF’s commitment to the open internet extends back to our inaugural round of grants in 2006, and was a driving force behind the decision to found the fund. Over the last year, our Open Internet Defense Fund has organized a wide range of funders to contribute to a coherent strategy for winning the strongest possible net neutrality rules. All of MDF is deeply proud of the energy that our founding director Helen Brunner poured into the campaign, from raising funds and awareness to directly participating in coalition-building and strategy.
What’s next for net neutrality?
Sadly, no policy victory is invulnerable. After the FCC releases the details of the new rules, internet service providers are likely to sue the FCC in an attempt to overturn them. Although Title II provides the best possible legal footing, and the FCC and MDF grantees are confident that the new rules will withstand this legal attack, the court battle will take resources and legal acumen to win. In addition, Congress may act to strip the FCC of its authority to act on the new rules, or take away the funding to enforce them. This approach is unlikely to succeed, due to strong public support for net neutrality and ultimately a presidential veto, but the fight to protect the open internet must wage on.
Nevertheless, the victory we won this month will echo through the coming decades, both as a textbook public interest campaign and a precedent for future communications rights. Congratulations to everyone who played a part, and a deep thanks to our funding partners who realized the importance of this 21st century First Amendment.