With Net Neutrality Axed, Local Governments Are Racing To Save the Open Internet

Cities and states are leading the way in defending the internet from corporate control.

Victor Pickard and David Elliot Berman

The fight for an open internet is still being waged. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Inter­net ser­vice providers like Com­cast and Ver­i­zon are free to slow down, block or pri­or­i­tize inter­net traf­fic as they wish, with­out inter­fer­ence by the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment. That’s the effect of an Octo­ber rul­ing by the D.C. Cir­cuit Court of Appeals, uphold­ing a 2017 rul­ing by the Fed­er­al Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Com­mis­sion that reversed rules requir­ing what is called net neu­tral­i­ty” – treat­ing all inter­net traf­fic equal­ly, regard­less of where it’s from or what kind of data it is.

Giv­ing cor­po­rate tele­com giants this pow­er is wild­ly unpop­u­lar among the Amer­i­can peo­ple, who know that these com­pa­nies have over­charged cus­tomers and inter­fered with users’ inter­net access in the past.

How­ev­er, peo­ple who advo­cate for an open inter­net, free of cor­po­rate road­blocks, might find solace in anoth­er aspect of the court’s rul­ing: States and local gov­ern­ments may be able to man­date their own net neu­tral­i­ty rules.

The effort is underway

Gov­er­nors in six states – Hawaii, Mon­tana, New Jer­sey, New York, Rhode Island and Ver­mont – have already signed exec­u­tive orders enforc­ing net neu­tral­i­ty by pro­hibit­ing state agen­cies from doing busi­ness with inter­net ser­vice providers that lim­it cus­tomers’ online access. Four states have passed their own laws requir­ing inter­net com­pa­nies to treat all online con­tent equal­ly: Cal­i­for­nia, Ore­gon, Wash­ing­ton and Ver­mont. A New Hamp­shire bill is in the works.

More than 100 may­ors rep­re­sent­ing both large urban cen­ters such as San Fran­cis­co and small cities such as Edmond, Okla­homa, have pledged not to sign con­tracts with inter­net ser­vice providers that vio­late net neutrality.

These may­ors are lever­ag­ing the lucra­tive con­tracts that their munic­i­pal­i­ties have with inter­net providers to wire pub­lic schools, libraries and local gov­ern­ment build­ings to pres­sure these com­pa­nies into observ­ing net neu­tral­i­ty through­out the city.

The emerg­ing patch­work of local- and state-lev­el net neu­tral­i­ty leg­is­la­tion could help ensure that mil­lions of Amer­i­cans have access to an open inter­net. How­ev­er, peo­ple liv­ing out­side of these enclaves will still be vul­ner­a­ble to the whims of for-prof­it inter­net ser­vice providers. In our new book, After Net Neu­tral­i­ty: A New Deal for the Dig­i­tal Age,” we argue that the best way to pro­tect the pub­lic inter­est is to remove inter­net ser­vice from the com­mer­cial mar­ket and treat broad­band as a pub­lic utility.

Cor­po­ra­tions focus on profits

Broad­band giants have spent mil­lions of dol­lars lob­by­ing against fed­er­al open inter­net reg­u­la­tions since 2006. Indus­try-backed efforts even includ­ed fund­ing a net­work of far-right online trolls to spam the FCC’s web­site with anti-net neu­tral­i­ty pro­pa­gan­da. These com­pa­nies con­tin­ue to want the pow­er to manip­u­late online traf­fic, such as charg­ing users and con­tent providers like Net­flix to access each oth­er – even though both are already pay­ing for con­nec­tions to the internet.

This his­to­ry of manip­u­la­tion high­lights a recur­ring chal­lenge to the ide­al of net neu­tral­i­ty: Gov­ern­ments seek to rec­on­cile the public’s inter­est in open, nondis­crim­i­na­to­ry online com­mu­ni­ca­tion with the prof­it inter­ests of large inter­net ser­vice providers. The result­ing poli­cies only nar­row­ly tar­get cor­po­ra­tions’ manip­u­la­tive prac­tices, while let­ting the com­pa­nies con­tin­ue to own and con­trol the phys­i­cal net­work itself.

Cities build their own

A dif­fer­ent vision of how the inter­net could oper­ate is already tak­ing shape across the Unit­ed States. In recent years, many cities and towns around the coun­try have built their own broad­band net­works. These com­mu­ni­ties are often seek­ing to pro­vide afford­able high-speed inter­net ser­vice to neigh­bor­hoods that the for-prof­it net­work providers aren’t ade­quate­ly serving.

One of the best-known efforts is in the city of Chat­tanooga, Ten­nessee, which built its own high-speed fiber-optic inter­net net­work in 2009.

Chattanooga’s exper­i­ment has been an unequiv­o­cal suc­cess: Accord­ing to 2018 sur­vey con­duct­ed by Con­sumer Reports, Chattanooga’s munic­i­pal broad­band net­work is the top-rat­ed inter­net provider in the entire U.S.

More than 500 oth­er com­mu­ni­ties around the coun­try oper­ate pub­licly owned inter­net net­works. In gen­er­al, these net­works are cheap­er, faster and more trans­par­ent in their pric­ing than their pri­vate sec­tor coun­ter­parts, despite lack­ing Com­cast and Verizon’s gigan­tic economies of scale. Because the peo­ple oper­at­ing munic­i­pal broad­band net­works serve com­mu­ni­ties rather than large share­hold­ers on Wall Street, they have a vest­ed inter­est in respect­ing net neu­tral­i­ty principles.

Think­ing bigger

A num­ber of much larg­er-scale pub­lic broad­band ini­tia­tives have also been pro­posed to com­bat the pow­er of the giant inter­net com­pa­nies. In the 2018 elec­tion cycle, Demo­c­ra­t­ic guber­na­to­r­i­al can­di­dates from Ver­mont and Michi­gan pro­posed build­ing pub­licly owned statewide inter­net networks.

Sev­er­al Demo­c­ra­t­ic pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates have announced plans to build thou­sands of miles of pub­licly owned high-speed inter­net con­nec­tions. They vary in the details, but all are respons­es to the con­cen­tra­tion of cor­po­rate con­trol over inter­net access – both in terms of who gets high-speed ser­vice in what loca­tions at what price, and what con­tent those con­nec­tions carry.

Togeth­er, these ini­tia­tives reflect a grow­ing under­stand­ing that Amer­i­cans need a more expan­sive vision of an open inter­net to tru­ly real­ize the demo­c­ra­t­ic promise of an inter­net that reach­es every­one.

High-qual­i­ty, afford­able, restric­tion-free inter­net access can come from pub­licly owned providers that answer direct­ly to the peo­ple. In our view, and in the eyes of a grow­ing num­ber of Amer­i­cans, the broad­band indus­try uses its entrenched mar­ket pow­er to serve itself, not the public.

This piece was first post­ed at The Con­ver­sa­tion.

Vic­tor Pickard is Asso­ciate Pro­fes­sor of Com­mu­ni­ca­tion, Uni­ver­si­ty of Penn­syl­va­nia. David Elliot Berman is a Ph.D. Can­di­date in Com­mu­ni­ca­tion, Uni­ver­si­ty of Pennsylvania.
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