Report

The public internet option

How local governments can provide network neutrality, privacy, and access for all

30 Mar 2018
Description

The internet has become a necessity, like traditional utilities such as water and power. Internet service is necessary for engaging meaningfully with society: to become educated, to participate in political and professional communities, and to seek help and companionship from those with similar interests or problems. Most importantly, perhaps, it is the primary medium for exercising our constitutionally protected rights to seek and share information.

Yet unlike water and electricity, access to home broadband internet remains highly inadequate in the United States 20 years after public internet usage first began to take off. A surprisingly high percentage of the U.S. population lacks any local access to broadband internet at usable speeds. And for those who do have some access to broadband, there is a troubling lack of market choice; when a choice between carriers exists at all, it is usually only between two — and that kind of duopoly is hardly sufficient to ensure robust competition over price and service.

In addition, corporate broadband providers have successfully pressured Washington policymakers into abandoning crucial internet protections, including network neutrality and fundamental communications privacy rules. This marks a stark departure from longstanding practice. The United States has long protected the privacy of our primary communications media, including the mail, telegraph, cable, and telephone systems. And the United States has long insisted on neutral “common carrier” protections to establish a level playing field for facilities that are crucial to the functioning of society and the economy, such as bridges, roads, trains, airlines, and the telephone system.

These principles are particularly critical for the internet — overwhelmingly our dominant form of communication today, and certainly an essential facility for individuals and markets alike. But in March 2017, privacy rules clarifying the application of longstanding law to the internet that were created by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) were reversed by Congress, allowing broadband providers to sell their customers’ browsing histories and any other data. And in December 2017, the new Trump-era FCC voted to reverse the commission’s network neutrality protections and, for the first time in the history of the broadband internet, remove the agency from any role in enforcing network neutrality principles.

In light of these actions, many citizens and local leaders have wondered, “what can we do?” Communities can and should take action on a number of fronts, including pushing their representatives in Washington to veto the FCC’s action through the Congressional Review Act (before that option expires), and supporting presidential candidates who pledge to appoint FCC commissioners who will reverse it. They should also do everything they can to push for state and local privacy and network neutrality protections to fill the vacuum created by the removal of the FCC from its protective role in this area. At the time of this report, many state and local governments were showing a lot of interest in doing this. Unfortunately, in repealing network neutrality protections, the FCC also purported to preempt state and local governments from creating their own protections. That means any such legislation will inevitably be subject to legal challenge by internet service providers (ISPs), and we don’t know how the courts will resolve that dispute.

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2018
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