It is vital to save net neutrality — and Wisconsin should be at the forefront of the fight for a free and open internet.
Of course, Gov. Scott Walker will be on the wrong side of the debate. He is an irrepressible errand boy for the corporate conglomerates that would sacrifice our digital future on the altar of rank profiteering.
It is precisely because Walker is so quick to sell out the public interest that the Democrats who would replace Walker must keep the fight to renew net neutrality front and center in their campaigns.
The defense of net neutrality is generally portrayed as a national issue. And it is that. After all, it was Donald Trump’s Federal Communications Commission that voted last fall to eliminate it.
It was an exceptionally unpopular move, which reveals the extent to which Trump and his appointees reject the public interest.
Millions of tech-savvy Americans have objected because they know that the United States cannot hope to be on the cutting edge when it comes to defining the digital future if it rejects net neutrality. Millions of advocates for civic engagement have objected because they know that the United States cannot hope to maintain a robust democratic discourse if it allows corporations to set up fast lanes for those who can pay to communicate and slow lanes for everyone else.
There never had been, nor is there now, a popular outcry for eliminating the rules and regulations that were crafted to ensure that all Americans can communicate and consume digital information.
Unfortunately, telecommunications conglomerates are determined to subdivide the internet in order to cash in on its potential. And they have enough servants in the Trump administration and on the Federal Communications Commission to turn federal policy against net neutrality. Congress could still restore this country’s commitment to a free and open internet, as could the courts.
Getting Congress to do the right thing is a tall order because Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell, and the caucuses they lead, have shown little inclination to do the right thing for the country — as opposed to their wealthiest campaign donors. But progress has been made in the Senate, where Maine Republican Susan Collins broke with her party leadership and joined 49 Democrats in supporting a Congressional Review Act resolution sponsored by Massachusetts Democrat Ed Markey. The CRA seeks to reverse the FCC’s decision. This initiative requires one more co-sponsor to force a Senate vote and prevail, and a campaign to get another Republican on board for a free and open internet is underway.
The demand for a Senate vote represents a vital first step not just on the legislative level but on the political level. It helps to make net neutrality what it must be: a political issue in the 2018 campaign.
The same goes for initiatives by governors and legislators in the states. States with responsible leadership have already moved to defend net neutrality. Montana Gov. Steve Bullock has issued an executive order requiring telecommunications companies that seek to do business with the state to maintain net neutrality standards. California, Hawaii. New Jersey, Oregon and Vermont have made (or are in the process of making) similar moves.
In Washington state, just last week, legislators approved a measure that bars telecoms from impairing or degrading "lawful internet traffic" and specifically prohibits companies from providing faster service for content from companies and campaigns that write bigger checks.
The Washington law provides a fine model for Walker’s challengers in Wisconsin, several of whom have solid records on open internet issues. Veteran reformer Mike McCabe knows the issue well, and has been outspoken in arguing: “Doing away with net neutrality would widen the gaps and accelerate the growth of inequality by clearing the way for the creation of what could effectively become two separate internets — an ultra-fast and comprehensive one for those who can afford to pay substantial premiums for access and a far slower and more limited one for everyone else. This would make it even more difficult for those who have been losing ground to compete economically and fully participate in modern American life.”
Madison Mayor Paul Soglin has been at the forefront of national efforts by mayors to make the case for net neutrality. A recent open letter from the group of mayors that Soglin is working with describes the FCC’s attack on net neutrality as a "stark and unwarranted attack on our communities and residents."
Another candidate, Milwaukee attorney Matt Flynn, has been the most ambitious of the contenders on this issue. He has released an impressive 21st Century Bill of Rights that declares:
1. Internet users have the right to a free and open internet. The state of Wisconsin is obligated to protect net neutrality.
2. All Wisconsin citizens have the right to high-speed broadband internet access.
3. Local communities in Wisconsin have the right to form municipal broadband districts to preserve net neutrality, keep prices reasonable, and provide high-speed internet to those currently without access.
4. Internet users in Wisconsin have the right to digital privacy from state and local government. The government may not access user accounts without just cause.
5. Private individuals in Wisconsin have the right to digital privacy from other private internet users.
6. Wisconsin citizens have the right to protection from internet fraud and unfair practices.
7. Wisconsin citizens have the right to free and fair elections, safe from digital interference.
8. The state of Wisconsin has the right and the responsibility to take full measures to protect itself from cyberattacks.
9. Wisconsin students have the right to computer education to prepare them for the future.
10. Wisconsin citizens have both the right to access an internet free of censorship and the right to know when information on the internet is false, misleading, or satirical.
Flynn says: “As our lives have moved increasingly online, we need to enumerate our digital rights.”
John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. firstname.lastname@example.org and @NicholsUprising.
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