It's just over a month since the GOP-controlled Federal Communications Commission voted to gut its net neutrality rules. But if Donald Trump and his hand-picked FCC Chief Ajit Pai thought they'd settled the matter, it's now becoming clear that what they've actually done is the exact opposite.
As Obi-Wan Kenobi might have told them: strike down net neutrality, and it will become more powerful than you could possibly imagine.
Right now, the war to save the open internet has all the political energy. It's being fought on multiple fronts: in the Senate, in courts, in states, in cities, and on late-night TV — not to mention in our homes.
This effort has more of a chance than you might think from its media coverage. That's because most reports are only focused on one front in the wider war. We're ignoring the big picture.
For example, we're told repeatedly that a Senate resolution Democrats introduced to reinstate net neutrality is a long shot. And it is! But with all Senate Democrats plus GOP Senator Susan Collins signing on, it now has 50 votes — only one Republican vote away from passing the chamber. Any political pro will tell you that represents an enormous amount of momentum, given that the vote itself isn't even scheduled yet (the FCC has to publish the rule change in the Federal Register first).
Yes, a Senate resolution would still need to pass the House of Representatives and avoid a veto at the Trump White House. That's not the point. Net neutrality restoration is a movement that's in it for the long haul. Clearing any legislative hurdle whatsoever — especially right at the outset — increases the power, confidence, visibility and viability of that movement.
Seeing what a hot button issue net neutrality is, it's not beyond the bounds of reason that the Republican leadership (and a flip-flopping president who was for net neutrality before he was against it) will fold rather than have it on the table during a very tough midterm battle.
But even if they don't, it's still a win. A Senate victory against party lines would prop up the cause of net neutrality in the courts; our legal system likes to interpret Congressional votes as the will of the people. If Speaker Paul Ryan refuses to let the House even vote on the matter, as looks likely, the Senate vote will be the only record of Congress's opinion regarding net neutrality.
Then there are the states. Attorneys General from 22 states filed a suit on Tuesday to block net neutrality repeal, including the AG from deep-red Mississippi. They were supported by a long list of tech companies such as Google, Facebook, Twitter, and Netflix. As with the Senate vote, they can't technically argue the case in court until the new rule is published — they're just saving a place in line.
The fact that so many politicians and lawyers are champing at the bit to fight for net neutrality tells us a couple of things. First, the way the FCC handled this matter is incredibly shady — regulations don't normally get overturned this fast, especially not with millions of fake comments logged by the FCC in support of overturning.
And secondly, this whole topic is a vote-winner on which all levels of elections could turn. Net neutrality was once a wonky topic without much public visibility. Now, 83 percent of voters said they opposed the FCC's move to gut net neutrality — including three-quarters of Republican voters. And that's just the start.
You'd think having to fight for a cause with a dull-as-dishwater name like "net neutrality" would doom the open internet.
The rule prevents the Comcasts, Verizons, and AT&Ts from manipulating how you use the internet and cutting deals with all the other tech giants. Sure, net neutrality isn't terribly catchy. Any political consultant will tell you it should have been called something more emotive, like "internet freedom."
Instead, Pai was able to seize that name for his repeal measure. The Columbia University professor who coined the term net neutrality has a lot to answer for.
But even saddled with that name, net neutrality has turned out to be a galvanizing issue for voters. Its poll numbers are off the charts: 89 percent of Democrats, 86 percent of independents and even 75 percent of Republicans favor restoring the rules. Young voters, who might not otherwise bother with midterm elections, are especially engaged with the issue.
This is surprising for two reasons: a) you wouldn't expect a dry debate about the ones and zeros of internet traffic to generate such heat, and b) lobbyists from Comcast and Verizon as well as Ajit Pai, himself a former Verizon employee, have been pulling out all the stops to reassure us that nothing will really change. Pai himself starred in a fun-and-friendly internet video reassuring us that it'll still be the same ol' internet you know and love.
But in the Trump era, it seems we're getting plenty of practice at sniffing out bullshit. We won't put up with this behavior from him; we certainly won't put up with it from a hapless stooge like Pai.
Meanwhile a single tweet lampooning Comcast's claim that it would never "block, throttle or discriminate against" any internet traffic — after the company had lobbied hard to overturn the rule preventing it from doing so — received 21,000 retweets more than the original. It frames the whole issue perfectly.
The movement is barely a month old, but its pressure is already evident. The tech industry is as close to being united on this issue as it gets. More than 200,000 people have now signed a petition calling for Pai's resignation. Senate Democrats used political jiu-jitsu, taking a Republican rule meant to repeal regulations and using it to force a vote. That's right, the Democrats actually got something done.
In short, don't fall for the defeatist line that the battle for net neutrality can't be won.
Don't fall for the defeatist line that the battle for net neutrality can't be won.
Maybe Republicans in the House of Representatives, facing a massive blue wave this November, will actually listen to their constituents. Maybe Trump, who supported net neutrality four years ago and has been known to change his mind once or twice, will reverse course and take the issue off the table before the election.
Maybe courts will block the implementation of the rule. Maybe Pai will be implicated in a sordid scheme to flood the zone with fake comments. Or maybe the internet provider giants, facing unprecedented customer outrage, will ask the FCC to change course.
It almost doesn't matter which of these outcomes we get, as long as we keep the pressure on. In the war to restore net neutrality, something's got to give.
And when it does return, having been the subject of a pitched battle in the Senate, the courts and the streets, net neutrality really will be more powerful than you can possibly imagine.