As soon as mid-August, the Federal Communications Commission could vote on a proposal to roll back net neutrality rules.
The specter of that impending decision concerns Sen. Maria Cantwell; so much so it was the focus of one of her three recess town halls in Western Washington.
“Their decision could change what has been put in place to protect the internet as an open access infrastructure so critical to us,” she said on Friday at Town Hall Seattle.
The third-term senator was joined by FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn in an event moderated by Washington Technology Industry Association CEO Michael Schutzler to discuss issues surrounding net neutrality, the potential consequences of reversing the 2015 decision, and how the public can weigh in.
“One critical voice in the right place will make a difference,” Clyburn said. “It will enable and empower other voices to make a difference.”
Currently, the FCC is considering a roll back of Title II regulations on internet service providers. That classification puts them under the header of “common carriers,” subjecting them to rules similar to those imposed on utilities. In essence, ISPs are barred from either speeding up or slowing down content that passes through their networks, preventing them from creating “fast lanes” for certain internet services over others.
Critics fear that with the end of those regulations, companies like AT&T and Comcast would charge extra fees to the content providers that could afford it, leaving all others with slower service. They would be the gatekeepers, and be able to block certain websites or content that they either don’t like, or are competing against.
Cantwell said she’s unsure that the public is truly aware of, “how perilously close we are to having these protections eroded from us.”
Clyburn — appointed to the commission by President Barack Obama in 2009 — was the lone dissenting vote against advancing the roll back proposal from FCC Chairman Ajit Pai in May.
Though she said, “the arc of history is bent in our favor,” Clyburn cautioned that the country is “a decision away potentially of our lives being changed over a platform that has empowered all of us to be better members of [our communities].”
The vote earlier this year also opened the public comment period, which runs through July 17, followed by a reply comment cycle that ends on Aug. 16. Any time after that, a decision could come on the future of net neutrality, though no matter the result, a protracted legal battle is likely.
Both Cantwell and Clyburn emphasized the coming weeks as a critical juncture for people to make their voices heard.
In particular, the senator and commissioner said that first-hand accounts of what the rule change could mean would make the greatest impact.
“I think personal stories, and affirming what a life without the internet, or access of Title II would mean, I think that would be most effective,” Cantwell said.
If the current regulations are rolled back, Clyburn said uncertainty would follow, at the detriment of the business community, which would hit regulatory and investment bottlenecks.
“We are on a path that gives the expert agency in this nation the clearest legal authority to protect you,” she said. “We’re on that path as we sit here now. What will happen if it’s overturned is uncertainty, and uncertainty is not good for business, and uncertainty is not good for us.”
Along with submitting a comment, Clyburn urged attendees to contact their lawmakers to express their views as well.
“You’ve got 535 opportunities to weigh in,” she said.
When asked what impact public comments have on the process, Clyburn said she couldn’t speak for her fellow commissioners, but merely herself.
“They make a difference to me, because we are your agency,” she said. “We’re not the Federal Communications Commission just for large business only. We are everyone’s Federal Communications Commission.”
If people don’t weigh in, she said, the result is all but assured.
“Silence is consent,” Clyburn said. “Silence and inaction assures us that nothing changed. I can’t assure you of a phenomenal outcome when we vote, but I can assure you if we do nothing, phenomenal will never come.”
To watch the town hall in its entirety, go to www.facebook.com/senatorcantwell/. To comment on this story, write to QAMagNews@nwlink.com.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of WTIA CEO Michael Schutzler.