Net neutrality could spur the next big political movement

As the FCC tries to dismantle net neutrality rules, Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii says internet-savvy, young people could become a political force.

Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Marguerite Reardon
7 min read
Demand Progress

The Federal Communications Commission's effort to repeal net neutrality regulations should be a rallying cry for internet-loving voters.

That's the message Sen. Brian Schatz, a Democrat from Hawaii, is promoting following news this week that the FCC is planning to vote next month on rolling back most of the Obama-era regulations that prevent broadband providers from messing with your internet access. Because Republicans control the FCC, the rollback is expected to happen.

Brian Schatz

Sen. Brian Schatz, a Democrat from Hawaii, says the millions of angry net neutrality supporters need to make their voices heard at the ballot box.

Tom Williams

Schatz and other outspoken Democrats have been critical of plans to dismantle the 2015 regulation that requires all internet content to be treated equally. Sens. Ed Markey (Massachusetts) and Richard Blumenthal (Connecticut), as well as FCC Commissioners Jessica Rosenworcel and Mignon Clyburn, are among the voices calling for the regulations to remain in place.

On Tuesday, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, a Republican elevated to lead the agency by President Donald Trump, unveiled his plans in a draft proposal. The proposal will be voted on next month by the full FCC.

Watch this: Beer helps explain battle brewing over net neutrality

The plan undoes net neutrality rules, which prohibited broadband providers from blocking or slowing traffic. It also banned them from charging internet companies, like Netflix, to access their customers faster than their competitors.

The FCC's plan does more than just ditch the old rules. It also abdicates much of the FCC's authority for overseeing the internet to another federal agency, the Federal Trade Commission.

Schatz serves on the Senate Commerce Committee, where he is the ranking Democrat on the Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, Innovation, and the Internet. He fears that giving broadband companies more control over the internet will lead to fewer choices and less access for all Americans.

The FCC's move, he says, "threatens to end the internet as we know it."

Schatz isn't alone. Millions of net neutrality supporters flooded the FCC with comments on the issue during a public comment period last summer. Grassroots organizers report more than 200,000 calls were made to Congress in the 24 hours following the release of Pai's proposal. Groups like Fight For the Future are organizing protests at Verizon stores the week before the Dec. 14 FCC vote.

CNET talked to Schatz about Pai's proposal. He said tech savvy constituents should stand up and be counted. He also said he's hopeful that a powerful political movement is about to be born. Below is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Q: What do you think the effect on the internet will be once the rules are repealed?
Schatz: We are now in a situation in which we will have to rely on market forces to maintain a free and open internet. And nobody really knows whether that will work or not. One thing we do know is we didn't need to do this to ourselves. This was a solution in search of a problem.

What do you mean by that?
Schatz: There is no lack of profitability or investment among these telecommunications companies. There is nothing that an open internet order did to them that diminished their success. They have been having a couple of great years since net neutrality rules were put in place.

In fact, after complaining about what it would do to their investment climate, as soon as it was passed, a lot of these companies told their investors that it wouldn't make a difference.

Chairman Pai claims that the 2015 rules hurt investment and stifled innovation. Is he wrong? Are you looking at different data?
Schatz: I'm saying that when a publicly traded company says something doesn't make a difference in terms of their investments, I trust that they are representing those facts accurately.

I have no doubt that Chairman Pai marshaled whatever evidence he could. But everybody knows that telecommunications companies are not suffering. Telecom companies are doing very, very well. And the internet economy is doing very, very well.

The FCC says it isn't abandoning net neutrality. Instead, it says the Federal Trade Commission and the Department of Justice will police the internet and make sure broadband companies don't abuse their power. Why isn't that a good idea?
Schatz: The FTC deals with fraud. The DOJ antitrust division deals with antitrust. Neither of those things are what we are talking about here. That is just a dodge. It's squarely the job of the FCC.

I talked to the chairman several months ago and he told me he'd have the ISPs essentially attest to net neutrality voluntarily. Then, the FTC would determine whether their attestation was valid or fraudulent. It's such a convoluted way. If you believe in net neutrality, we should just have it. We don't have to do a bunch of fancy dancing. It's already in the law.

And nobody is complaining about it other than telecommunications companies, who don't want to be regulated and who might like the option 10 years from now to slice and dice the internet just like your cable package.

What's next? What's being done to fight this change?
Schatz: Folks need to mobilize against this. Our path includes doing three things at once.

First, I know there will be litigation. I don't know whether it will be successful. We may be able to win in court, but I never rely on that. I consider that to be something that is out of my hands.

Second, I'd like this to be resolved at the legislative branch. And I am personally going to pursue a good faith legislative path, although I will admit I'm no Pollyanna. I don't have unrealistic expectations and know it's going to be difficult. But I do think as a member of the Senate Commerce Committee and the ranking member on the telecommunications committee, it's important to explore that without giving away too much.

If the first two fail, this becomes a voting issue. If we can get 10 million people to take an action with the FCC, that's great. But the only thing that will move politics structurally is if those 10 million people who sent emails become 10 million people who will vote a certain way. And we do not yet have what we need, which is a bunch of tech voters.

You think this issue ultimately needs to be settled by voters?
Schatz: Yes. This repeal is a direct consequence of us losing an election. That is what this is about. The Republicans have a 3-2 majority on the FCC because we lost.

We can strategize and do our best, but the structural disadvantage that we have is that they have a 3-2 majority, and they intend to use it. We need to understand that the only thing that can beat this is people power. People who are angry about this change need to mobilize around it.

There's no evidence so far that tech voters are a force to be reckoned with across the country, but we're getting there. This may be an opportunity to build that movement. And this is not just an issue that resonates in California or in other liberal places. It cuts both ways across the partisan line.

How do you make this a bigger movement?
Schatz: This can't be the seventh item on your list of issues, where you just tweet about it and you're done. It has to be a "Why are you allowing this to happen to my internet" kind of issue.

And it's not just about involving Silicon Valley. It's about getting millennials across the country to think about the difference between the parties when you think about the internet, when it comes to privacy, when it comes to climate change, when it comes to civil rights and human rights.

There's plenty of motivation to build a coalition of young people who can change politics in this country. But if net neutrality decisions are left to people who just recently got on the internet, we are going to continue to have this problem. And I don't mean that about Ajit Pai, he's obviously very skillful and internet savvy. He's the exception, not the rule.

Who do you mean then?
Schatz: Congress. We have to demand a level of fluency on and commitment to these issues. We expect that every politician running for federal office is at least conversant in foreign policy, at least understands how budgets work. But it's still the case that you can get elected to the Congress and know nothing about the internet, even though it's playing an increasingly dominant role in everyone's life. I just believe it must be young people who demand that of their candidates.

Net neutrality became a voting issue in the 2008 election. But maybe it wasn't enough of an issue. Do you really think you can rally everyone to think of net neutrality and technology as their main voting issue?
Schatz: It may not be as important to 60 percent of the public, but we want it to be really important for 10 or 15 million people. And they will become single-issue voters about the internet. That is an incredibly powerful force. Just just ask the NRA. 

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