By Craig Aaron
This is what democracy looks like.
That’s not something I thought I’d ever say about the bureaucrats at the Federal Communications Commission.
After years of cronyism, corruption and cowardice, Thursday’s vote for strong Net Neutrality rules at the FCC is unexpected if not unprecedented.
The FCC is reversing a decade of failed policies, rejecting a massive misinformation campaign from the cable and phone industries, and restoring the agency’s authority to protect Internet users.
This is the biggest win for the public interest in the agency’s history.
Yet even five months ago, this kind of victory looked impossible.
How We Got Here
Credit FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler for listening to his critics and changing his mind about how to best protect the open Internet. Praise President Obama for using his bully pulpit. Thank John Oliver for coining the memorable phrase “cable company fuckery.”
But know that none of this happens without a relentless push from the grassroots. The real story here was dozens of public interest groups, new civil rights leaders and netroots organizers coordinating actions online and off, inside and outside Washington.
Artists, musicians, faith leaders and legal scholars bolstered their efforts. And about a dozen mostly unsung advocates in D.C. pushed back daily against the phone and cable lobby. This diverse coalition broke the FCC’s website, jammed switchboards on Capitol Hill, and forged new alliances that are transforming how telecom and technology policy is made.
The long but probably still incomplete list of key groups that share in the credit for this victory includes 18 Million Rising, Access, the ACLU, the Center for Media Justice, ColorOfChange.org, Common Cause, Consumers Union, CREDO Action, DailyKos, D.C. Action Lab, Demand Progress, Democracy for America, EFF, Engine Advocacy, Fight for the Future, Free Press, the Future of Music Coalition, the Internet Freedom Business Alliance, the Media Action Grassroots Network, the Media Democracy Fund, the Media Literacy Project, the Media Mobilizing Project, MoveOn, the National Hispanic Media Coalition, Open Media, the Open Technology Institute, PCCC, Popular Resistance, Presente.org, Public Knowledge, Revolutions Per Minute and SumOfUs.
These groups worked alongside online companies (notably upstarts like Etsy, Kickstarter, reddit and Tumblr), investors and an abundance of startups and small businesses that didn’t want to get stuck in an Internet slow lane. Some of these innovators stepped in at key moments to lobby policymakers. But no matter what you might read in the Wall Street Journal or the New York Times, the activists spurred the companies — not the other way around.
The highlights of the past year included rallies outside the FCC and across the country, people camped out on the FCC’s doorstep, enormous video billboards erected in D.C., jam-packed public hearings, and street theater. More than 40,000 websites joined the historicInternet slowdown in September.
All told, more than 4 million people filed official comments with the FCC — more than on any other issue in the agency’s history — with the vast majority of them calling on the chairman to scrap his earlier terrible plan and make strong rules under Title II of the Communications Act.
And for once, the FCC listened.
Why Title II Is So Important
Back in January 2014, when a federal court tossed out the FCC’s previous attempt at open Internet rules, no one knew that the wonky shorthand for a key section of the Communications Act would become an activist rallying cry. But that’s what happened with Title II.
In the hundreds of pages of rules the FCC votes on Thursday, the part that matters most is the agency’s decision to recognize that broadband access is a telecommunications service. This is so important because it’s the law, and it’s the only way to restore the agency’s the power to make rules against blocking, discrimination or slow lanes.
The rules are only as good as the authority they rest on and the FCC’s willingness to enforce them. So we’ll have to remain vigilant. But with the key sections of Title II intact, Internet users will be able to file complaints and actually stop corporate abuse — including future nefarious schemes Comcast and Verizon haven’t even dreamed up yet.
Almost everything the FCC does leads to a lawsuit — and these new rules will be no exception. But the beauty of the Title II approach is that it will actually stand up in court. The phone and cable companies know that Title II gives the agency the strongest legal standing — which is why they’ve been fighting so hard against it.
Lies, Damn Lies and Ajit Pai
Aware they’ve lost both the FCC vote and the public’s support, our opponents in Washington have resorted to lies and deception. The crazy talk has reached a fever pitch with claims that these lightest-touch rules will raise taxes, re-impose the Fairness Doctrine, encourage dictators, unleash trial lawyers and smother puppies.
But trying to track all of the truthiness is a constant game of whack-a-mole, with the same lies popping up over and over. Taking the lead in this misinformation campaign has been Republican FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai, who is unscrupulous but very media-savvy. Of course, his outlandish claims can’t withstand any actual analysis or scrutiny.
What the FCC is proposing has nothing to do with Internet content or censorship: Net Neutrality rules don’t regulate what’s on the Internet any more than the FCC dictates what people say on phone calls.
Nothing the FCC is doing will raise your taxes. The Washington Post awarded the Progressive Policy Institute “three Pinocchios” for telling this lie. And Sen. Ron Wyden, author of the Internet Tax Freedom Act, summed up the cable-funded think tank’s claims in a single word: “Baloney.”
Title II’s alleged harms to broadband investment also have been repeatedly debunked — not just by Free Press, but by top executives at Verizon, Charter, Comcast, Google, Sprint, T-Mobile, Time Warner Cable and Verizon (at least when they’re talking to Wall Street instead of Washington).
The industry is shelling out millions to deceive people, but they aren’t buying it. Support for real Net Neutrality is strong across the political spectrum, and more than 80 percent of self-identified conservatives support protections like the ones the FCC is putting forward.
The Next Fight
With this victory, and the ones like SOPA that came before it, a new political force has awakened. But we’ve only just scratched the surface of what a well-organized Internet constituency can accomplish. Now we must figure out how to turn this exciting moment into a lasting political movement.
Comcast and Verizon are used to getting their way in Washington and won’t take this defeat lying down. Soon we’ll see legislation designed to undermine the FCC’s new rules, attempts to defund the agency, and a new wave of Astroturf groups unleashed on the Hill and the airwaves.
So while we can celebrate today, we need to start defending Net Neutrality again tomorrow. That starts by showing Congress what we just showed the FCC: Messing with the Internet is a big mistake.
Craig Aaron is president and CEO of Free Press, the national, non partisan media reform group. He is the editor of two books, Appeal to Reason: 25 Years of In These Times and Changing Media: Public Interest Policies for the Digital Age. He is a graduate of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism.