By Paul Goodman
Imagine that you picked up the phone to order a pizza and were told that the phone company would only connect your call to a pizza place owned by the brother of the phone company’s CEO. You’d be justifiably outraged. Thankfully, we have a host of consumer protections that ensure your right to call whomever you want, have whatever conversation you want, and even order pizza from wherever you want.
However, if you decide to order that pizza online, broadband providers argue that these rules shouldn’t apply. Shockingly, new Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai has taken their side.
The protections I’m talking about mainly go by the unglamorous name of “net neutrality” — a wonky term that simply refers to your right to access the information you want via the internet, without your service provider playing favorites. Broadband companies, working with Congress and the FCC, are pushing to eliminate the net neutrality rules that protect our ability to access the Internet content of our choice.
And this is only one of many ways that the FCC under Pai threatens American consumers.
Advocates and consumer groups fought very hard to obtain net neutrality protections, and in 2015, got the FCC to implement strong, reasonable net neutrality rules. These rules have broad bipartisan support from over 80 percent of Republicans and Democrats (in fact, Republican support for net neutrality runs slightly ahead of Democrats).
That hasn’t stopped the industry’s pets in Congress and the FCC from trying to gut net neutrality. But rather than doing so in an open manner, with hearings and public input, they’re trying to sneak changes by in the hope we won’t notice.
For example, Congress refused to vote on the renomination of Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel (a Democrat), forcing her to drop off the commission and giving the FCC a Republican majority. Meanwhile, FCC Chairman Pai is slowly undoing net neutrality rules by exempting some providers from abiding by them. It also appears likely that, rather than debating net neutrality rules in public, Pai may simply direct FCC staff to not enforce them.
That’s not all. Pai’s FCC is also moving to cripple efforts to make broadband available and affordable for low-income Americans.
That has huge economic and practical implications. More and more companies only advertise jobs and accept applications online, and college and trade school applications have moved online as well. All sorts of news and information — business or job opportunities, information about essential government services, and even life-saving emergency alerts — often reaches us first via the internet. At least it does if you have access to a broadband connection that you can afford.
But about a third of Americans lack a home broadband connection, and those Americans are disproportionately poor, rural, African American or Latino.
In rural and low-income communities, broadband infrastructure simply doesn’t exist. The federal government’s Connect America Fund—similar to programs that brought electricity and telephone service to rural America in decades past – has started to address this. But Pai has indicated that he wants to put impossible new conditions on this program, likely strangling its effectiveness.
Meanwhile, too many simply can’t afford a broadband connection, a problem the Obama administration had started to address. Last April, the FCC expanded the Lifeline program—which for decades has made telephone service affordable to low-income Americans—to include broadband access as well, opening the door to the internet for millions of low-income people. Late last year, the FCC gave the go-ahead to nine broadband providers to start participating.
And then, last month, in a stunningly mean-spirited move, Pai—who opposed the Lifeline expansion in the first place—reversed course and blocked those companies from participating.
The FCC under Pai has effectively declared war on American consumers, with low and moderate income people being hurt the most. The president must think that’s fine, since he just renominated Pai for another five-year term.
It’s time for Congress to stop this war on ordinary Americans. The Senate can start by rejecting another term for Chairman Pai.