On the 14th of December 2017, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) of the United States voted to repeal net neutrality, the Obama-era regulations set to protect consumers from undue restrictions from internet service providers (ISPs). With net neutrality, ISPs recognized broadband as a type of utility, where internet data and all web traffic were treated equally. The 3-2 vote limits the authority of the FCC to regulate ISPS who, in turn, now have more leeway when it comes to controlling how people use the internet.
While it may look like the fight for internet freedom has been lost, that’s not what a coalition of attorney generals from a number of U.S. states think. On the same day the FCC voted against net neutrality, these states pledged to stop the FCC from rolling back net neutrality. One of the people leading the charge is Eric T. Schneiderman, Attorney General for the state of New York. He believes that American society has a lot to lose without a free and open internet, which is why he is suing to prevent what he calls the “illegal rollback of net neutrality.”
“The internet is the public square of the 21st century,” Schneiderman said in an exclusive interview with Futurism. “But without net neutrality, it will become a private square — with massive corporations deciding what people and ideas get in. Without net neutrality, internet service providers will be able to censor content.”
In the simplest of terms, the repeal of net neutrality means that ISPs “get to decide which websites you have access to — and which you don’t. They’ll be able to intentionally slow down your internet service — and charge you more just to get back up to speed,” Schneiderman added. “Even if [ISPs] promise not to do those things right now, there will be no rule against them changing those promises down the road.”
The coalition of attorney generals now includes Massachusetts, Illinois, Oregon, and Iowa. Meanwhile, others in California and Washington have pledged to prevent internet providers, such as AT&T, Verizon, Comcast, and Charter, from restricting internet access by slowing down web traffic or by prioritizing their own content and media. In Connecticut, lawmakers plan to take on the FCC in court.
As far as Schneiderman and his fellow attorney generals are concerned, the FCC failed to follow rather basic — but necessary — procedure when it came to the decision on net neutrality. Now, they intend to sue the agency over it.
“Under the law, federal agencies — including the FCC — have to have a period of notice and comments,” he told Futurism. “This is an important element of our democracy. The American people have the right to make their opinions known and agencies have to take into account what people think. This is a critical part of the rulemaking process.”
Schneiderman believes the entire process went against the Administrative Procedure Act.
“[Y]ou can’t possibly argue that the FCC took people’s comments into account if they didn’t even make the effort to ascertain which comments were real people and which comments were fake comments,” he said.
In that case, the failure isn’t just a procedural one: the entire notice and comments period had been marred by fake comments — which Schneiderman and his colleagues informed the FCC about as early as May 2017. “We discovered millions of fake comments, including many where people’s identities were stolen, some of the names were just made up,” he said. “[The FCC] didn’t care, they refused to respond to us, so we felt we had to go public.”
Schneiderman argued that the FCC’s decision to go ahead with the repeal, despite not having clearly ascertained the public’s true opinion on the matter, sets a dangerous precedent for other federal agencies. “[F]or the FCC to tolerate identity theft — which is a crime in many states, including New York — is really outrageous. This is not the way any federal agency should behave and we’re going to challenge it,” he said.
For the coalition of attorney generals, that concern is as equally pressing as lobbying for the FCC to reverse its decision. The issue of fake comments and identity theft is not likely to become more easily managed, given the extent to which procedures (such as open comment periods) are increasingly conducted online.
“We’re going to challenge [the FCC’s decision] in court, we hope to have this rolled back. But, in the future, they have to address this. I mean, this threatens not just the FCC but other federal agencies. If they can get away with phony comments — some of them have been tracked out of the country, some of them have been tracked back to Russia — they can corrupt all of our rulemaking process and that’s really a blow to democracy.”
In the meantime, the NY attorney general is asking people to keep up the fight for net neutrality. “We’re urging people to stay engaged. Do not let yourself get talked into the idea that this is over now. The fight still goes on,” Schneiderman said. “The lines cannot be more brightly drawn. Those of us in favor of internet freedom are going to keep fighting for it.”