Blue States and Cities Need to Step Up to Save Net Neutrality

The Trump FCC under Chairman Ajit Pai appears dead set on killing net neutrality. Despite a massive public outcry against the changes, the Republican-led commission seems almost guaranteed to implement new rules allowing internet service providers to throttle and deny access to any online content they want, leading to a whole host of evils including censorship, tiered pricing not only for speed but also for content, shakedowns of content providers, and dedicated fast lanes for big companies that pay the extortionary tolls.

There is no reason for this policy except blatant corruption. The public doesn’t want it, and there isn’t even a fig leaf of a policy reason for doing it. Free market anti-regulation arguments are ridiculous given that internet access in America is usually a localized monopoly, which makes deregulation a dystopian nightmare akin to the broken cable television market that consumers are desperate to escape as soon as cord cutting meets their content needs. Except that unlike the relative luxury that is cable/satellite TV entertainment, we’re talking about the entire online infrastructure upon which the economy and democracy itself depend.

Even misguided libertarian theories of good governance would require solving the local monopoly problem before deregulating the monopolistic service providers. Republicans are doing this almost entirely because content providers like Google, Facebook and Netflix are seen as aligned with the center left, while internet delivery companies like Comcast and Verizon are traditionally aligned with the right. It’s all about pleasing the corporate donors, enacted by a bunch of politicians who know and understand nothing about internet policy or the devastating consequences of their position.

The immediate action that citizens can take is to flood both Congress and the FCC with angry feedback so that they feel the heat. Pai’s FCC seems immune to public pressure, but as with healthcare, Republicans in Congress may not be. It’s within Congress’ power to slow or even stop the FCC decision. But hanging one’s hopes on the GOP to stand up to their donors on matters that not even they understand seems like thin hope.

The more realistic answer is to do what many blue states are already doing, which is to skirt the FCC and impose net neutrality unilaterally. Imposing a network of localized neutrality regulations would be more painful for Comcast and Verizon than a single national neutrality policy. Not surprisingly, the ISPs have anticipated this move and are working with breathtakingly hypocritical “states’ rights” Republicans to write the FCC regulations in such a way that states are barred from creating their own rules. But those attempts can be challenged in court, which would potentially stall the FCC’s new rules in legal challenges until a Democratic Congress can put net neutrality into law.

But there’s an even more radical and simple solution that progressive areas can adopt: simply create public broadband and take the ISPs out of the equation entirely. Many conservative states already have laws preventing local cities from taking these actions (again with astonishing hypocrisy against their “local control” ideology) but the reality is that if enough major liberal cities start taking internet delivery into their own hands, it will force greedy ISPs to either play ball with fair business practices, or be relegated to conservative areas in economic decline.

If net neutrality is to survive, progressive states and communities will need to move to create their own progressive solutions. We cannot count on Congress to save us, or for Ajit Pai’s FCC to develop a conscience.

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.