There has been a rising tide of voices seeking to ensure that the Internet remains open to alternative viewpoints with easy access to all for years to come. In recent years, these groups have sought political avenues for ensuring that their ideals become the law of the land. For instance, many thousands of American citizens have supported net neutrality rules implemented by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), rules which have recently been upheld by a federal appellate court this June.
Now, a consortium of civil rights and open technology groups are trying to make open Internet concepts an issue on the political trail leading up to the election of the next U.S. President.
On Monday, June 13th, a 2016 Internet Policy Platform supported by 17 public interest organizations was announced. It includes a series of policy proposals which would further improve access and open communications in the eyes of open Internet activists. The advocacy groups are pressuring both the Republican and Democratic parties, as well as the presumptive nominees of both parties, to adopt these platform points during their campaigns.
The 2016 Internet Policy Platform focuses on a series of six principles that will be very familiar to those who have followed the FCC’s implementation of net neutrality. The platform seeks the protection of free speech without censorship on the Internet; universal access to affordable platforms for communication; a competitive choice of Internet service providers (ISPs); the right to communicate and access information in private; transparency in data collection techniques among government and online platforms; and the support of net neutrality to protect the rights of all content creators online. Among the 17 supporting organizations are included the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the Center for Media Justice, ColorOfChange, Free Press, the Center for Rural Strategies, the United Church of Christ and the National Hispanic Media Coalition.
Many of these groups are interested in seeing the Internet continue as a digital infrastructure, which has proven to be crucial to economies bolstering various minority groups. In the original press release, comments from ColorOfChange’s media justice director Brandi Collins indicates that, thus far into the Internet age, the total number of businesses owned and operated by African American women has increased by a whopping 322 percent. Other representatives from the National Hispanic Media Coalition and the Asian/Pacific Islander representation group 18 Million Rising noted the importance of open avenues to the Internet on the socioeconomic status of those groups.
The platform expands upon each of the six main issues to show how political candidates are expected to protect future iterations of the Internet. On the free speech principle, supporters of the platform should oppose any policy threatening constitutional freedoms to speech, press or government petitions, support the treatment of ISPs as common carriers and pursue “balanced” copyright laws which skew towards freedom of expression. For access, supporters should pursue the opening of more wireless spectrum, the protection of low-cost broadband options and the consideration of market-based initiatives for lowering costs. To protect choice, supporters should oppose consolidation of phone and cable companies and remove barriers to ISP competition. The privacy principle urges the reining in of certain aspects to the Patriot Act, the FISA Amendments Act and Executive Order 12333, the last of these signed during the Reagan administration, each of which involve the collection of Internet data; supporters should further oppose limits to encryption and oppose cybersecurity legislation requiring ISPs and others to turn over information to government agencies. The transparency principle urges supporters to encourage streamlining of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) responses as well as the publication of government transparency reports providing information on content orders. Finally, the openness aspect to the platform requires supporters to defend the FCC’s implementation of net neutrality and to oppose unreasonable practices such as data caps and zero-rating schemes.
Actions meant to support an open Internet are increasing during a time in which some argue that the Internet is actually becoming less open thanks to legislation and the efforts of private companies. One instance of this is the E.U.-US Privacy Shield framework, the regulatory regime controlling data transfers between American-based Internet services and European Union consumers. The framework allows for the restriction of data access in exceptional circumstances, such as when that access would violate the “legitimate rights or important interests of others.” Whether or not readers agree with the reasoning, the framework introduces data restrictions and although those restrictions largely cover E.U. consumers, American businesses have seen European courts try to impose legal concepts such as the “right to be forgotten” in a way that would affect data access back in the United States.
Back in America, we’ve seen companies with major Internet presences lean towards the European model of data restriction at the expense of the American model of free speech. Recently, we covered an agreement among social media providers like Facebook Inc. (NASDAQ:FB) and Twitter Inc. (NYSE:TWTR) to adhere to a European Commission code of conduct that bans hate speech. As we point out in our coverage, that type of framework could be abused to censor political dissidents. Again, this technically only covers Internet consumers in the E.U., but with recent reports of Facebook censoring conservative pages and news articles, it’s not hard to imagine a similar type of “hate speech prevention” abuse of free speech occurring here in America.
In recent months, we’ve covered issues inherent in the FCC’s implementation of net neutrality and it’s very likely that at least some of those problems are repeated in the 2016 Internet Policy Platform. For one, a defense of free speech on the Internet seems to be a bit of a red herring: What couldn’t be said on the Internet before which is now enabled by open Internet rules? Protecting something that’s not being threatened is highly unusual. There are also voices on Capitol Hill, many of them coming from the Republican Party, which allege that the FCC’s net neutrality regime constitutes government overreach and gives the FCC an authority it wasn’t supposed to have.
We’ve also pointed out in the past how regional ISP monopolies have more to do with local municipal contracts than they do with federal regulations, making federal oversight of ISP competition a quagmire. As the tech publication WIRED has noted in the past, the high cost of “rights of way” agreements which ISPs must pay to municipalities and local utilities create a huge barrier against new ISPs entering an existing market. Activists who want to see more ISP competition within regional markets would likely be better served taking action at the local level and not at the federal level with the FCC. Yes, incumbent ISPs are somewhat to blame for the situation, but net neutrality as implemented has very little to do with enhancing competition among ISPs at the local level and much more to do with weakening ISPs at the behest of large content providers like Facebook, Twitter, Netflix Inc. (NASDAQ:NFLX) and others with larger subscriber bases than the ISPs themselves.
None of this is to say that the 2016 Internet Policy Platform is inherently bad. The points that civil rights and ethnic minority advocacy groups bring up in noting the positive economic impact of the Internet are certainly valid. It’s just that aspects of the platform, much like aspects of the FCC’s net neutrality regime, are misguided and don’t accomplish what open Internet activists set out to achieve. Some parts of the policy platform, such as the opening of more wireless spectrum for data services, definitely create a consumer benefit. However, the idea that putting a horse collar on ISPs and asking them to pull more weight with less ability to charge extra fees would seem to simply increase the obstacles towards getting into the Internet service providing industry, thereby choking competition and innovation.