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Sound the alarm: Net neutrality is under attack at the FCC, and it’s up to us to save it

The second of three Seattle-area town halls organized by U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell’s office took place this morning. Focused on net neutrality, it featured a panel discussion hosted by Cantwell, who was joined by the FCC’s Mignon Clyburn and Michael Schutzler, CEO of the Washington Technology Industry Association. The trio took questions related to the proposed rollback of Title 2 regulations.

Commissioner Clyburn, who was appointed to the FCC by President Barack Obama, brought a lot to the discussion, providing informative and poignant answers to difficult questions. Constituents offered questions ranging from the ability of local governments to be able to regulate bandwidth in their regions, to the possible privacy implications of FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s anti-internet proposals.

Both the Senator and Commissioner Clyburn started off the event by stressing the importance of informing the public about protecting net neutrality.

Maria Cantwell's town hall on net neutrality

Senator Maria Cantwell, Federal Communications Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, and Michael Schutzler, CEO of the Washington Technology Industry Association at Town Hall (Photo: Andrew Villeneuve/NPI)

“We are building an internet economy,” stated Senator Cantwell, who deemed the possible rollback of FCC regulations this August a grave threat to our “free and open internet.” Both the Commissioner and the Senator agreed that the internet is a essential service that all Americans should have access to.

In her opening remarks, Commissioner Clyburn suggested that this was an “opportunity for us to turn back the clock,” suggesting that with a large enough public outcry, the FCC might abandon Pai’s harmful trajectory and instead move one step closer to a completely free and open internet.

Cantwell reiterated her belief that “the internet is a public utility” during the Q&A, a view that appeared to be widely shared among audience members.

When asked about whether it was the government’s responsibility to build infrastructure to enable free and open access to the internet, both Senator Cantwell and Commissioner Clyburn expressed strong interest in building on the federal government’s past work to foster the deployment of broadband.

Throughout the event, Commissioner Clyburn stressed the importance of providing stories to the FCC within the public comment period. She asked constituents to ask themselves if the internet had made their lives better.

Naturally, audience members responded that it had.

Clyburn noted that stories have power, and that the FCC really needed to hear from small businesses that would be impacted by the repeal of net neutrality.

Cantwell described the current situation at the FCC as a “regulatory freeze”. Giant cable and telecom companies like Verizon and Comcast have been lobbying the FCC, demanding the rollback of rules they don’t like. Pai has been carrying their water.

If Commissioner Pai’s current plan were to pass, it would spur massive changes to our internet-driven economy and further infringe on digital privacy rights, contributing to a grand state of uncertainty, as Commissioner Clyburn put it.

Perhaps the best moment of the town hall was when a young man asked the panel if internet should be a place that embraces the First Amendment. Cantwell’s reply consisted of just one word: Yes. The short, blunt answer was well received by the assembled crowd. Commissioner Clyburn weighed in too, adding: “Net Neutrality is the First Amendment of the internet,” likening the concept of a free and open internet to our founders’ vision of a free democratic society.

Both the Senator and Commissioner urged the audience to leave comments in opposition to Pai’s plan through the FCC’s website, and urge fellow activists to follow suit, so that the FCC receives a large, grassroots-driven groundswell in support of keeping broadband regulated as public utility under Title II.

It is vital we all speak to the consequences of the FCC’s proposed rollback. But the voices of cyber entrepreneurs are especially needed because they could carry more weight with the Republican members of the FCC, Pai included.

“Business stories,” Clyburn said, “are what we should focus on.”

The panel reflected on the impact that Daily Show alum John Oliver had on the FCC’s proceedings back in 2014, when he urged viewers of his program Last Week Tonight to contact the FCC in support of net neutrality. Over five million comments were ultimately sent, and those significantly influenced the FCC’s rulemaking, helping pave the way for broadband to be regulated as a public utility.

(A few weeks ago, Oliver’s HBO show ran a follow-up segment.)

That was a significant victory, but those gains could be reversed if we don’t speak out now in defense of net neutrality. A massive, wide-ranging day of action in support of a free internet is planned for next Wednesday, July 12th, and NPI will be taking part, along with countless other organizations.

Cantwell will hold one more town hall tomorrow (Saturday, July 8th). It is a general town hall open to a wide-ranging discussion of all issues. The event is open to the public, but requires tickets. Visit the Senator’s website for more information.