After the FCC voted to repeal Net Neutrality back in December 2017, it initially looked like the days of a free and open Internet were coming to an end. Pundits and analysts warned of service providers like AT&T and Comcast choking off or throttling the Internet for some content providers and users, stifling free speech and causing the Internet as we know it to fade away forever. While that nightmare scenario never came to pass, it now looks like the battle over Net Neutrality is heating up again for 2019.
New steps to bring back Net Neutrality rules
First and most importantly, a group of 22 states and the District of Columbia are challenging the FCC repeal in federal court. Joined by some big-name Internet sponsors (including Mozilla), these states hope to get the courts to overturn the repeal, thereby restoring things as they were. And that’s not all – a smaller subset of states (including both California and Washington) – are trying to pass their own state-level Net Neutrality laws that would reinstate Net Neutrality at the state level, if not the federal level.
And where things get murkier still is with the new Democrat-controlled House of Representatives, which has been making noise about “undoing” the FCC repeal of Net Neutrality. (Of course, this might take a lot longer than anyone expects!) From their perspective, the Trump administration tried to “undo” the Obama-era Net Neutrality rules, and now it’s their turn to “undo” the Trump-era Net Neutrality rules.
Of course, things could get really nasty in Washington, D.C. since this is yet another fight that is turning into a “Democrats vs. Republicans” battle. The head of the FCC, Ajit Pai, is a Republican and most Republicans support the repeal of Net Neutrality as a pro-business measure that will help to make the Internet sector more dynamic and innovative, and possibly even usher in 5G broadband networks more quickly. On the other side, Democrats are standing up for Net Neutrality as a pro-American measure that supports American values.
If in doubt, blame Russia
And, since the fight over Net Neutrality is now a political fight and not a fight over technology, it’s only natural that somebody is going to enter the arena and proclaim that the Russians are to blame. And that’s exactly what proponents of Net Neutrality are saying happened – they say that pro-Russian Internet forces stepped into the “comment period” of the FCC and tilted the playing field in favor of Republicans by filling up all the comments with anti-Net Neutrality sentiment. The Russians want to wreck our Internet! The Russians want to sow confusion and disillusionment in American society!
And, indeed, it does appear that over half a million comments came from “Russia-linked email addresses.” But here’s the thing – most analysis appears to indicate that all these Russian bots were actually in favor of Net Neutrality! That’s like saying the Russians got involved in the 2016 presidential election – but tried to elect Hillary Clinton instead of Donald Trump! So maybe that’s why all the “Russia talk” about the comment section has faded from the limelight.
So get ready for a wild, crazy political ride in 2019. Remember when the battle over Net Neutrality was being waged between rational adults who loved the Internet and appeared to be genuinely concerned about principles like free speech? Those days are over, replaced by a rough-and-tumble approach in which the law is being used as a blunt weapon to achieve partisan political goals.