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Q&A: The Fight to Save a Free and Open Internet

Two people in front of a laptop computer
A young woman and her brother use Philadelphia’s municipal wireless project to log on to the internet on February 26, 2008. © Jessica Kourkounis/NYTimes/Redux

Net neutrality, the idea that internet service providers should treat all content equally, is under attack. We spoke to Gigi Sohn, an Open Society Leadership in Government Fellow who served as counselor to the Federal Communications Commission chairman under President Obama, about the changing landscape and the challenges ahead.

What was the biggest success you had during your tenure in government in improving access to communications networks for communities that need it most?

We had a number of big successes in that arena while I was there, so I’m going to cheat and combine two into one. We modernized and expanded two of our “universal service” programs that provide subsidies to increase access to communications networks for underserved communities.

The first is the FCC’s E-Rate program, which provides money to schools and libraries for connectivity to the building and inside of it. We modernized the program by making it a broadband-only program, providing more money for WiFi inside schools and libraries, allowing schools and libraries to build their own networks and increasing the budget for the first time since the program’s inception in 1996.

The second is the FCC’s Lifeline program, which provides a subsidy for low income households. Here too, we modernized the program by making it a broadband program, streamlining the process for becoming a Lifeline provider (which allows for more competition), and setting minimum standards for broadband speeds and data caps to ensure that Lifeline recipients can take full advantage of broadband technology.

Are those gains now threatened?

The current FCC majority, led by the new chairman, Ajit Pai, does not believe that the government should give subsidies to connect the most vulnerable Americans to the internet. They have already taken small steps to dampen the demand for these subsidies, and I believe that they will make more sweeping changes as time goes on. Their goal is to convince the American people and Congress, who put these programs into law, that there is little demand for them and that they should be shrunk and eventually done away with.

What can advocates do to safeguard these programs—and to protect internet freedom, generally?

Advocates have to watch everything this FCC is doing, because even little decisions can have major effects. They need to call these actions out. We have already seen, with the debate over Congress’s repeal of the FCC’s broadband privacy rules, that these rules can become election issues. Congress can have a lot of influence with the FCC to stop engaging in actions that harm vulnerable communities.

The new FCC chairman talks about trying to help Americans in low-income and rural communities gain better access to high-speed internet services. Are there areas of agreement that might allow for progress, despite partisan differences?

The chairman talks a lot, but his actions don’t always match his words. He has already weakened the Lifeline program, which helps low-income Americans get access to broadband, and I believe he will try to do more to damage the program in the future.

On the other hand, the chairman has made good and I believe will continue to make good on his promises to give more resources to incumbent rural internet service providers. But giving more money to these companies doesn’t necessarily guarantee that rural communities will gain better access to broadband. We’ll have to see if Chairman Pai holds the rural internet service providers to their promises to provide more and faster broadband to rural communities.

Are there any encouraging stories about closing the digital divide at the state and local level that, despite the obstacles that may exist at the federal level, give you hope?

When I was at the FCC, I traveled around the country to celebrate those cities who have prioritized closing the digital divide. Cities like Kansas City, Charlotte, and Chattanooga are just three examples of cities that either built their own community broadband networks or brought in competition to companies like Comcast, AT&T, and Charter, which lowered prices and improved services. Wherever local communities dedicated themselves to better broadband, a host of organizations dedicated to ensuring that everyone can get access would soon follow. 

The ability for a local community to choose for itself whether it wants to build its own network or work with a competitive provider is critical to closing the digital divide. Unfortunately, nearly half of the states have laws prohibiting such competition, thanks to legislation pushed by the large incumbent cable and internet companies.

But there is also hope in those places that don’t have such restrictions. I’m really excited that San Francisco is moving forward on a plan to build its own city broadband network. If a city the size of San Francisco can succeed, it could serve as a template for other large cities as well. 

What is the most surprising thing you’ve learned about the policy arena since you began your fellowship? 

The most surprising thing I’ve learned is how little people on the outside know about how the FCC actually works. You really have to be there to know the little things that make a difference. And since I was a bridge between the substantive policymakers, the press shop, the legislative office, and even the technology office, I got to see many of the FCC’s processes up close. And I think it has helped me enormously in my fellowship. 

The comedian John Oliver famously raised public awareness of net neutrality when the Obama administration-era FCC was considering changes. What impact do you think Oliver will have on the commission now?

John Oliver had an enormous impact on the net neutrality proceeding that led to the current rules adopted in 2015. First, he made understandable an issue that advocates like myself had been trying to explain to the public for years, and made it funny. Second, he convinced hundreds of thousands of Americans to file comments with the FCC supporting net neutrality grounded in the strongest legal authority. That show of support from the American people played a large role in the ultimate decision to adopt the strongest-ever net neutrality rules grounded in the strongest legal authority. 

Oliver had a segment recently that garnered a similar response; according to press reports, the segment may have spurred as many as 150,000 comments to the FCC, even though the FCC’s comment filing system stopped working because it couldn’t handle the volume.

Just as in 2014 and 2015, policymakers in Congress and in the White House will see the bipartisan support these common-sense rules have, and they may decide that having the FCC move forward with giving control of your internet experience to the big cable and internet companies will have deleterious consequences in the future.

Update (May 18, 2017): The FCC has voted to move forward with plans to rewrite the net neutrality rules enacted under President Obama.

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