Net Neutrality in the Age of Trump: Why Americans Must Reclaim the Internet

By Jack Churchill

For many of us, calls for “net neutrality” might sound outdated and unexciting. Considering the frenzied pace of today’s news cycle, it makes sense that few have time for yesterday’s headlines. But while net neutrality may no longer be considered a hot-button issue, telecommunications companies’ unregulated control of Internet content continues to expose the American public to Free Speech abuses. After President Donald Trump’s Federal Communications Commission (FCC) rolled back the Obama-era net neutrality rules in 2017, internet service providers (ISPs) gained free reign to slow down certain websites and to censor online content. While ISPs have generally been well-behaved since the repeal, the lack of regulation leaves the Internet vulnerable. Americans must mount a bipartisan effort to reinstate net neutrality, ensuring equality of access and the right to Free Speech. 

At its most basic, net neutrality is the term given to laws that ensure ISPs––such as Verizon, AT&T, and Comcast––treat all Internet communications equally. In practice, the rules have two major implications. First, they dictate that ISPs cannot charge higher rates in exchange for faster speeds. Second, they prevent ISPs from censoring certain websites, which in turn guarantees that ISPs’ politics do not affect online search results. In 2015, as part of its Open Internet Order, the Obama administration passed this version of net neutrality. Tech leaders celebrated the move. FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler called it a decisive win for Free Speech, stating that “no one — whether government or corporate — should control free open access to the Internet.” Today, however, that legacy is under threat. 

When the Republican-led FCC repealed these net neutrality rules in December 2017, Ajit Pai, the FCC’s then newly selected chair, lauded the move, saying deregulation would spark creativity. He called the internet “the greatest free-market innovation in history.” And when describing the internet’s inception, Pai claimed that private entrepreneurs –– and certainly not “heavy-handed government regulation” –– are to thank for its success. In response to concerns about Free Speech, Pai confidently asserted that the supposed threat was far overblown: “The internet wasn’t broken in 2015. We weren’t living in a digital dystopia.” When reporters asked why the FCC supported net neutrality laws in the first place, Pai was dismissive: “There was no problem to solve.”  

The move to repeal net neutrality laws highlights how the Trump administration has politicized the internet. For the president, repealing equal access has become a real political win; it directly challenged President Barack Obama’s do-good legacy, while advocating for a degregulated pro-business approach. 

Without net neutrality, censorship and Free Speech violations have become a serious threat. There is already precedent for such Free Speech abuse. In 2007, Verizon Wireless cut off access to a text messaging program directed by Naral Pro-Choice America, an abortion rights group. When pressed about the issue, Verizon claimed that it would block any “content that, in its discretion, may be seen as controversial or unsavory to any of [its] users.” It was only after a public outcry that Verizon reversed its decision. The 2007 Verizon-Naral controversy shows that when an ISP finds it politically expedient, it can simply choose which websites or programs to block altogether.

Similarly, the same year, AT&T censored the band Pearl Jam when they criticized George Bush during their performance at Lollapalooza. Playing a cover of Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall,” the band sang “George Bush, leave this world alone… George Bush, find yourself another home.” During a webcast of the band’s performance, AT&T monitors cut the two lines. After facing criticism from free speech activists, AT&T publicly apologized, vowing to improve. Though more than a decade old, these events highlight ISP censorship before the Obama-era net neutrality laws. Without these regulations, further violations become virtually inevitable. 

While opponents of net neutrality argue ISPs are largely apolitical, telecommunications companies are already deeply involved in the political process. For instance, in the past decade, Verizon, Comcast, and AT&T combined for nearly $10 million in donations to both Republicans and Democrats. They clearly have no problem buying political support. As their control of the internet goes unchecked, censorship becomes almost inevitable. In a country founded on Free Speech, having a few corporations control the internet should make everyone nervous. 

In the past two years, a research team at Northeastern University in Boston has documented how ISPs slow down Internet traffic. The study reports that since net neutrality’s repeal, nearly every American ISP has begun “throttling,” or slowing, streaming services. So far, they have targeted websites such as NBCSports, Netflix, Youtube, and Amazon.  The research team found that throttling of video traffic happens “24/7, and in every region where [it has] tests.” And while there is still no direct evidence of political motivation, the study shows that ISPs target mobile users, especially those with cheaper plans.

In addition to Free Speech concerns, ISP control of the internet raises concerns over equity of access. Without net neutrality laws, ISPs can legally charge sites higher rates in exchange for faster internet speeds. In theory, these costs would go directly to the companies that use the most data. However, there is nothing to stop them from passing on the costs to consumers. The potential scenarios are frightening. For instance, if an ISP sharply raises Google’s prices, the search engine might respond by instituting a monthly fee. The same could go for education websites, forcing them to charge a premium for educational material. And students who rely on these free resources would inevitably face barriers to learning and skill development. 

The end of net neutrality also threatens to thwart small business. After buying ISP support and faster internet speeds, large corporations will only strengthen their hold on market share. In response, open-internet advocates have called the end of net neutrality a tax on small business. For startups looking to break into new industries, it will be impossible to compete with powerful companies and their established relationships with ISPs. Such startups will have no chance to get off the ground. Industry leaders will not just have an advantage; they will be playing by an entirely different set of rules. 

When you search online for information about net neutrality, you mostly get articles from 2017, when the rules were repealed. At the time, most major media sources published articles about the issue. But today, the debate has largely disappeared. Outrage fatigue is understandable; for many, developing insensitivity to such injustices has become a survival mechanism. Nonetheless, the issue is not going away. Trump’s administration has shown the potential to change its path when it is politically expedient. But first, the United States must realize this is a battle worth fighting. 

 Fortunately, most Americans support net neutrality. According to a 2019 poll, four in five Amercicans favor the Obama-era approach; 67% cite freedom of speech and censorship as their main concern. In response, the Democratic leadership introduced the Save The Internet Act on March 8, 2019. The bill passed the House of Representatives on April 10, 2019, and the legislation went to the Senate. However, in a Republican-controlled Senate, the chances of its passage are slim. Bipartisan support could perhaps put pressure on GOP politicians to change their stance –– and perhaps vote against Trump. 

Again, there is reason for hope. Free Speech issues are among the few that still bridge the growing political divide. While America’s political climate remains polarized, cooperation is by no means impossible. Taking back the internet will likely depend on unlikely partnerships. But moving forward, if we are going to insure equal access and safeguard freedom of speech, it will take all of us to make it happen.