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Net Neutrality Is Back; Telecom Giants Are Again Playing Dirty

Above Photo: Frederik Lipfert/Unsplash.

Opponents of net neutrality have endless money to burn on influence operations.

And they’ve shown no qualms about breaking the law to achieve their goals.

Can you hear that? That’s the sound of an army of well-paid public relations consultants frantically typing up op-eds and blog posts at the behest of internet giants like Comcast, Verizon, and AT&T.

Their misleading arguments are formulaic enough that ChatGPT can probably do most of the work. Slanted studies are being commissioned. Deals for ad buys are being signed. Donations are being made to dark money “nonprofits” who soon will suddenly care deeply about the classification of broadband.

Big Telecom’s lobbyists and spin doctors are working overtime this week because the Federal Communications Commission has at long last announced the agency’s plans to restore Title II net neutrality, which was repealed in 2017 by the Trump administration.

In a functioning democracy, this move would be noncontroversial. Basically no one outside of the telecom giants and their front groups supported the repeal of the rules. The Title II protections were put in place after millions of people from across the political spectrum demanded that the FCC use its authority to prevent internet providers from abusing their gatekeeper power, blocking or slowing down websites, or charging unfair fees to use your favorite apps.

Thousands of small businesses explained how net neutrality was essential for keeping mom-and-pop shops from getting crushed by big corporations. Planned Parenthood warned that the repeal of the rules was a threat to reproductive rights and sexual health. Librarians, teachers, veterans, and first responders all rallied against the repeal.

No matter your political views, pretty much everyone can agree that we don’t want our phone company to decide where we get our news or listen to music, charge us scammy fees, or generally screw us over more than they already do.

Unfortunately, that kind of “cable company f*ckery,” as comedian John Oliver called it, is extremely profitable for Big Telecom monopolies, especially ones that own their own media empires—Comcast owns NBC Universal, while AT&T owns CNN and HBO.

That’s why these behemoths are willing to stoop so low to kill net neutrality. It may be good for consumers and democracy, but it stands in the way of their aspirations of domination and their quest to squeeze us internet users for every penny.

How low will they go? Last time around, telecom monopolies were caught red-handed funding millions of fraudulent comments, using real people’s names and addresses that were stolen and stuffed into the FCC docket to create the fake appearance that lots of people oppose net neutrality. In California, astroturf groups placed misleading robocalls specifically targeting senior citizens, falsely claiming that net neutrality would make their phone bill go up.

Suspiciously named nonprofits like the Progressive Policy Institute, who hide their donors, ran misleading ads that looked like they were pro-net neutrality while sending emails to lawmakers opposing net neutrality. My own group, Fight for the Future, and other net neutrality activists, were targeted by a hacking-for-hire group who tried to break into our personal emails. Later, that group was tied to a “fixer” type firm that does dirty work for U.S. companies.

Opponents of net neutrality have endless money to burn on lobbying and influence operations, and they’ve shown no qualms about breaking the law or straight-up lying to achieve their goals. The ink has barely dried on the FCC’s announcement, and inside-the-beltway outlets are already awash with industry-backed opinion pieces falsely arguing that net neutrality was never needed and that bringing it back will ruin the internet.

This one is from an organization called Citizens Against Government Waste. They’re best known for astroturfing on behalf of Big Tobacco, but apparently they don’t discriminate as long as you’re willing to write them a check. Here’s another piece loudly touted to be authored by former Obama attorneys but—oops—they forgot to disclose that the underlying study was funded by telecom industry lobbyists.

Buckle up, kids. We’re going to see a lot more of this.

Telecom shills have a few talking points that astroturfers will continue to recycle over and over again. There’s the thoroughly debunked lie that net neutrality protections decrease telecom giants’ investment in their networks. But the new favorite by far is, basically, “The internet has been fine since net neutrality was repealed, so that proves we don’t need it.”

Actually, things haven’t been fine. Even with active court challenges and a strong net neutrality law in California keeping telecom giants’ worst behavior in check, big internet service providers have demonstrated exactly why we need to restore the FCC’s ability to provide basic oversight.

Verizon prioritized profits over people’s safety when it throttled internet traffic for California firefighters during devastating wildfires. Many disadvantaged communities, including those in rural areas and communities of color, have consistently been excluded from broadband expansion efforts. Some ISPs have even resorted to requiring customers to watch advertisements before granting access to the internet.

The COVID-19 pandemic forever put to rest the idea that internet access is a “luxury,” as millions of us found ourselves completely dependent on our internet connection in order to go to work, send our kids to school, and access lifesaving medical information.

With its hands intentionally tied by the repeal of Title II, the FCC could do almost nothing to address egregious inequities, like children having to sit outside Taco Bell to complete their homework during the pandemic because they didn’t have internet access at home.

After an industry-backed smear campaign against unquestionably qualified nominee Gigi Sohn led to inexcusable delays in getting President Joe Biden’s FCC up and running, the commission now has no time to waste. If it doesn’t move quickly to restore net neutrality, it could run out the clock.

That means the agency will have to steel itself against the predictable onslaught of misleading anti-Title II nonsense. Yes, there will be a steady stream of op-eds in The Hill, industry-friendly Wall Street Journal editorials, and astroturf letters covered by Politico. Yes, telecom lobbyists will likely revisit their exploitative and offensive tactic of falsely claiming net neutrality is harmful to communities of color and low-income people. Yes, right-wing extremist groups will laughably claim these rules against censorship will somehow lead to government censorship.

All of this is to be expected. But the FCC has a job to do. And it needs to do its job—even if the industry it’s supposed to regulate doesn’t like it.

Evan Greer is the director of Fight for the Future, the digital rights group known for organizing the largest online protests in human history for net neutrality.

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