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Oped: A path forward on net neutrality
Of the many unmistakable and powerful messages coming from voters after the Parkland massacre, one is the notion that Americans are tired of leaders putting politics ahead of the nation’s business. Members of Congress, for their own good, should see this canary in the coal mine, not just on gun safety but just about everything else as well.
And while protecting the open internet may not, rightfully, stir the same passions as protecting our children from semi-automatic weapons, the devolving debate about internet freedom illustrates just how dysfunctional our politics have become.
Net neutrality is the idea that no internet provider or tech company should be permitted to discriminate against internet traffic in order to benefit some competitors, viewpoints or ideas over others.
This issue has been a political hot potato for decades, as federal regulators, companies, and successive presidential administrations have jockeyed for position and tried to shape policies to strengthen the open internet without harmful unintended consequences — such as driving away investment in new networks or undermining internet providers’ ability to efficiently and securely manage their networks.
But in the last couple of years it has exploded into a white-hot first order policy question in Washington as the internet has become ever more central to our daily lives and both the left and right have come around to agree on the need for clear and lasting rules ensuring openness. In the “fake news” era, the risk of big media platforms manipulating our access to data and information has become all too apparent, and the corresponding call for action on broad-based net neutrality has grown from a steady murmur to a deafening storm.
That brings us to this critical moment. Will our representatives heed their constituents and put real legislation in motion? Or will we get yet another round of empty rhetoric and hide the ball tactics, where members trumpet minor half measures and kick the policy can down the road?
Right now, it’s an open question. One camp in Congress, led by far-left career activists, is pushing an incomplete solution called the Congressional Review Act that would reinstate an Obama FCC approach to net neutrality and ask the Trump FCC to enforce it. They hail it as the only “pure” solution on net neutrality, but the CRA is a limited and ineffective shortcut.
It’s a temporary measure because it leaves the issue in the fickle hands of this or any future administration and fails to make net neutrality the permanent law of the land. Administrative rules change from administration to administration, while statutes endure. Rather than showing leadership, the CRA approach is an abdication to the whims of the executive.
It’s also an incomplete solution that regulates only internet access providers and leaves giant platform monopolies such as Google and Facebook free to manipulate and prioritize the information and websites we see online — not in the service of consumers but to their revenue bottom lines, and those of their most moneyed advertisers and sponsors.
Left unchecked, we have seen the damage these platforms can do as their secret algorithms force feed us divisive and inflammatory click-grabbing messages and distort and pollute the marketplace of ideas.
In the wake of the Parkland shooting, for example, YouTube awarded its top “trending” spot to a conspiracy video claiming one of the student activists was a paid “crisis actor” — an appalling abuse of the network's control over discourse and debate. The Mueller indictment of Russian bot farms and intelligence operatives also exposes the need for meaningful oversight and a genuine open and transparent internet environment. But again, the CRA takes a pass on all this, a duck that allows Congress to avoid confronting hard truths.
Congress has a better path available — a real net neutrality law that establishes strong, permanent, and comprehensive rules of the road for cyberspace and protects users from anti-competitive manipulation or prioritization of their data or other informational attacks.
At a time when left and right agree on the need for these protections, when companies and their customers agree the current system isn’t working and leaders in both parties are under the microscope to prove they can govern and deliver for their constituents, the moment is ripe for action on this issue.
Americans are tired of both parties cravenly playing to the almighty “base” while paying lip service to the people's business. Whether it be protecting children or strengthening the internet, it’s time we ostracize the amped up partisans who play to increasingly fringe views and instead demand our representatives take the tough votes that will really make a difference.
— Patricia Ford is a former executive vice president of the Service Employees International Union.