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Why Everyone Should Care About Net Neutrality

Protests are being held nationwide today, including more than 15 across Michigan’s Upper and Lower Peninsulas, in support of keeping net neutrality.

The primary target of protests is Verizon, the former employer of the current Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chair Ajit Pai, who wants to roll back protections afforded under net neutrality, which allows consumers to be the driver of what goods, services or information they consume on the Internet, rather than allowing wealthy companies or individuals to buy “fast lanes” through agreements with an Internet service provider (ISP) to reach consumers.

Because of net neutrality, your ISP – such as Comcast, Verizon or AT&T – can only charge you for a speed of internet, not what you do on it, like play video games versus watch movies versus shopping. Without net neutrality, two companies offering the same product or services can enter into agreements with an ISP to their benefit and their competitor’s detriment, allowing the company with access to substantial financial resources to get their message to you faster than their competitor, thus stifling – if not killing – their competition, whether that’s a young, innovative small business or other telecommunications giant.

Verizon has been opposed to net neutrality since its inception in 2014, making the decision by Pai to gut net neutrality suspicious, to say the least.

“We’re calling on our lawmakers to do their job overseeing the FCC and speak out against Ajit Pai’s plan to gut Title II net neutrality protections and give Verizon and other giant ISPs everything on their holiday wish list,” organizers of the protests said. A full list of protests is available online.

According to 2016 campaign finance statements by OpenSecrets.org, Michigan congressional Republicans had accepted a combined $866,755 from Comcast, AT&T and/or Verizon’s lobbying arms compared to $681,984 contributed to their Democratic colleagues by those same companies (who would most benefit from the end of net neutrality).

Author’s note: OpenSecrets collected contribution information from various telecommunication companies’ PACs, individual members, or employees or owners and their immediate family since 1989, meaning those who have served longer will inevitably have higher numbers than newer elected officials.

And when faced with a vote in March that would have required ISPs to get your permission before collecting and sharing your data, it was only Democrats and U.S. Rep. Justin Amash (R-Cascade Township) that supported what was otherwise another Obama-era policy protecting consumers. Unfortunately, they were in the minority, scoring a big win for the same companies who now eagerly await the end of net neutrality.

A vote on repealing the net neutrality rules by the FCC, which is led by three Republicans and two Democrats, is slated for December 14.

Bridging the Partisan Divide

The fight for net neutrality bridges various groups, regardless of political affiliation, social status, race, gender, and other social constructs. In that sense, both Republicans and Democrats should care about keeping net neutrality. Here’s why:

Elected officials, and especially “free market” Republicans, love to talk about choice and allowing competition. This was most recently evident in the political rhetoric in Lansing last year about electricity when one side was billed as the “electric choice” side and the other was “anti-choice.” It divided the majority Republican caucuses in the House and Senate.

Majority Republicans love to talk about supporting the “mom-and-pop shops,” the small businesses, and the “hardworking taxpayer.” If that is actually true, they should care about keeping net neutrality, because those are the folks most impacted by gutting a law that otherwise ensures major ISPs can’t create the aforementioned “tiers” of Internet service anticipated if net neutrality didn’t exist.

It’s also an issue of supply and demand. The demands have never been greater for people to have access to and actively engage on the Internet, making providers a hot commodity. People use it to network, apply for jobs, communicate with long-distance business partners, and much, much more. You already pay extra if you need more bandwidth, but gutting net neutrality would give companies providing those services the driver’s seat, allowing them to pay providers more money to ensure their content or service reaches you before your competitor.

If a massive corporation has the money to spend on it, they will, but the mom-and-pop shop trying to provide the same service likely won’t have extra money to spare on such advertising.

Small businesses and the average person — to say nothing of those with low income — will not have the money to pay all the extra fees that would likely come from ISPs demanding you pay more for adequate service.

Also lost in that fray are the start-up ISPs already trying to innovate ways to provide such an in-demand service for cheaper. Already, per the FCC’s own numbers, a mere 17 broadband companies (those who provide high-speed Internet) serve 93 percent of the U.S. population, which is to say that for many, they don’t have more than one option for such service, leaving them at the mercy of what provider(s) they do have.

In fact, the FCC found that 51 percent of Americans have zero or one choice of such a provider.

That’s how the Internet, and the existence of net neutrality,  keeps all consumers, regardless of income or socioeconomic status, on a level playing field. Having net neutrality means even big companies have to find ways to reach those who may not have the financial means to have Internet at all – which is exactly why Democrats should care about net neutrality, too.

History can tell anyone what happens when a limited number of companies with an in-demand product, whether it was steel or refined oil, can do without competition, and it’s why America created not one, but two antitrust acts to actually be on the side of the people.

Danielle Emerson

Danielle Emerson