A free and open Internet is one of the pillars of democracy, an essential, equalizing force for the powerless and a key piece of social democratic infrastructure. There’s a reason why freedom of the speech and of the press, and the right of the people to assemble, are enshrined in the 1st Amendment to our Constitution. The founders knew that one of the greatest threats to democracy was government overreach and suppression of its citizens’ access to information.
Fast forward nearly 250 years later and substitute “corporation” for “government.” Substitute “internet” for “speech and the press.” The ability of corporations to suppress the free flow of information, citizenry’s access to free speech, and the ability to organize, is a major threat to our democracy. That’s why we’re seeing an epic battle over Net Neutrality, an all-out fight to stop telecoms from creating fast and slow lanes for content on the Internet.
The sides are clear. Net Neutrality is supported by 81 percent of everyday American people, including a majority of Republicans, who submitted a record over one million comments to the FCC in support of the strongest possible rules reinstating Net Neutrality. Up against massive popular opposition, the Internet Service Providers (ISPs) led by AT&T, and Big Telecom including Comcast and their trade association and the National Cable and Telecom Association, spent over $42 million in lobbying in just the first half of this year.
In 2005, the FCC run by George W. Bush appointees opened the door to discrimination on the Internet. Bush was reelected with help from people like AT&T’s former CEO, Ed Whitacre, who was a Bush Pioneer raising over $200,000 for his reelection in 2004. And don’t forget, AT&T’s corporate PAC gave the maximum contribution to George W. Bush’s presidential campaign in 2000 and then to the Bush-Cheney campaign in 2004 — and topped it off with a $1 million donation to the George W. Bush Foundation to help build his presidential library.
AT&T-backed candidate Rick Perry failed to win the primaries and AT&T’s general election pick John McCain lost the presidency in 2008 to Barack Obama. A new FCC was put in place and the fight to restore Net Neutrality ramped up again.
In 2010, the FCC under intense pressure from telecom lobbyists adopted weak Net Neutrality rules that Big Telecom challenged in court. After a decision in January 2014, these Net Neutrality protections were thrown out.
The current chair of the FCC, Tom Wheeler, is a former telecom lobbyist and has thus far sided with AT&T and Big Telecom by resisting calls to put forward Net Neutrality regulations with teeth. But days after the 2014 election, President Obama weighed in with explicit support for the strongest possible rules to protect our free and open Internet.
AT&T immediately threatened legal action if the FCC moved to institute the strongest possible rules to protect Net Neutrality. Not to be outdone, AT&T and Big Telecom-funded Tea Party Leader Sen. Ted Cruz joined the fray with the most bizarre response, declaring that Net Neutrality was “Obamacare for the Internet.”
We don’t yet know if the FCC will join President Obama in standing with the American people or if the Commission’s Chairman Tom Wheeler (who before he took the helm of the FCC promoted FCC approval of the failed merger of AT&T and T-Mobile and headed the National Cable & Telecommunications Association and the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association) will cave to the likes of AT&T, Big Telecom and Ted Cruz.
Total control of the Internet by corporations pose an existential threat to our democracy. And it’s being brought to you by AT&T and Big Telecom.