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Expect a Loud and Angry Backlash When the FCC Repeals Net Neutrality

Don’t say you didn’t see it coming.

Today the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is expected to cast a party-line vote repealing its net neutrality regulations. The agency is risking a major public and media backlash by so brazenly siding with big corporate interests like Comcast, AT&T and Verizon against the wishes of Main Street American internet users.

The principle behind net neutrality is simple and has overwhelming public support: The internet should be open and free. The FCC’s net neutrality rules, finalized in 2015, prohibited internet service providers (ISP) like AT&T, Comcast and Verizon from speeding up, slowing down or blocking any content, applications or websites you want to use.

Net neutrality is a great example of how regulations protect and benefit regular Americans – and Americans get it. A poll conducted by the University of Maryland released today found that 83 percent of voters want to keep the FCC’s net neutrality rules – including 75 percent of Republicans, 89 percent of Democrats and 86 percent of Independents.

Without net neutrality, cable and phone companies will be allowed to carve up the internet into fast and slow lanes. ISPs will be able to slow down their competitors’ content, block political opinions they disagree with and force consumers to pay extra to access large parts of the internet. This is what Republican commissioners on the FCC are voting for – and consumers hate it.

That’s why in 2015, millions of ordinary Americans who care about the internet urged the FCC to adopt net neutrality rules in the first place, and this year, millions more submitted comments asking the agency to keep the rules in place. In addition, more than 500 small businesses, more than 160 public interest groups and more than 30 press freedom and civil liberties groups have signed on to letters backing net neutrality.

In the past few months, thousands of activists have attended rallies and demonstrations in defense of net neutrality. And today, dozens of Democratic lawmakers and at least one Republican called on the FCC to delay today’s vote.

But none of this appears to matter to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, who is determined to do away with the rules. Pai, his allies in the Trump administration and the ISPs pushing for repeal are asking for a backlash. Evidently they’ve already forgotten what happened in April, the last time they defied public opinion.

Earlier this spring, at the behest of the same ISPs that are pushing to repeal net neutrality, President Donald Trump and Republicans in Congress repealed the FCC’s recently finalized broadband privacy protections – regulations that would have prevented ISPs from tracking your online behavior and selling that information without your permission and that would have beefed up online data security requirements.

The broadband privacy protections had the same level of public support as net neutrality rules. A Huffington Post/YouGov poll conducted in March found that 83 percent of Americans backed tougher broadband privacy measures and with good reason. This year’s massive data breaches at Equifax, Yahoo, Uber and dozens of other companies have more than demonstrated the need for such requirements.

But instead of simply letting the rules take effect, broadband privacy protections were repealed using the Congressional Review Act (CRA): a process that allows Congress to strike down recently issued public protections by majority vote in both chambers with limited debate, no possibility of a filibuster and the president’s signature. At least a dozen other rules were wiped out using the CRA process, but none of them provoked the level of outrage that repeal of the broadband privacy protections triggered.

The swift backlash took the form of wall-to-wall coverage on the late night talk shows; a tsunami of editorials, opinion columns and letters to the editor in national and local newspapers as well as online publications; billboards across the country targeting Republican lawmakers who voted for repeal; angry constituents hounding Republicans in both chambers of Congress in town halls and on their phone lines; and vows from the left, right and center to vote Republicans out of office for siding with the big telecoms against Main Street Americans.

The outrage was bipartisan and spanned the ideological spectrum. Even far right outlets like Breitbart had nothing but contempt for those who gutted broadband privacy protections. Regular Americans who don’t pay any attention at all to politics were paying attention to this – and were furious at the lawmakers who voted the wrong way. Shockingly, the creator of the popular and crass card game Cards Against Humanity even pledged to buy and publish the browsing history of members of Congress who voted to strip online privacy protections.

Republicans in Congress were so frightened by the intensity of the backlash that they started working on and co-sponsoring legislation to undo the damage caused by their vote. At least 17 state legislatures introduced similar legislation to establish their own broadband privacy protections. Most embarrassingly, the White House legislative affairs director was forced to concede that repealing broadband privacy protections would do nothing to create jobs, contrary to administration talking points.

Repealing broadband privacy protections may have satisfied the demands of the Republican Party’s big corporate donors, but it quickly became public relations catastrophe. Now, it appears that Republicans at the FCC are about to do it all over again – repealing net neutrality as payback to those same corporate donors.

What we’ve learned this year is that Americans are passionate about our online freedom, privacy and security – and the regulations that ensure it. Take them away and there will be hell to pay.

Don’t say you didn’t see it coming.

Photo courtesy of Backbone Campaign/CC BY 2.0