UPDATE: As expected, the commissioners of the FCC voted 3-2 along party lines to rescind the net neutrality protections instituted by the agency in February 2015. Internet advocacy groups responded to the vote by announcing legal challenges.
Broadcast and cable news programs have been largely silent on the topic of net neutrality in the weeks since the Republican-led Federal Communications Commission (FCC) indicated its intention to rescind Obama-era consumer protections codifying a free and open internet. With the FCC set to begin deconstructing those regulations today, news coverage must provide viewers with enough context to make clear the stakes of this dramatic policy shift.
The FCC’s commissioners, a majority of whom are Republican appointees, are expected to vote “along party lines to scrap Obama-era net neutrality rules” during its December 14 meeting, marking “a huge victory for the big internet service providers” who have sought to dismantle the consumer protections governing how customers and content-providers interact online. According to a December 12 report from Reuters, three major net neutrality advocates -- Public Knowledge, Common Cause, and Free Press -- have given up attempting to convince Republican-appointed FCC commissioners to reconsider their decision and, with little reason to expect a legislative solution from an unproductive Republican majority in Congress, are “preparing to turn to litigation as a last resort.” Another major net neutrality advocacy group, the Internet Association -- which represents technology giants and content providers like Amazon, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft -- is also weighing possible legal challenges to the FCC’s ruling, according to the report.
The FCC’s Trump-appointed chairman, Ajit Pai, spent the days leading up to the December 14 vote doing a tour of friendly conservative media outlets to promote his anti-neutrality agenda without facing any pushback from consumer advocates and regulatory experts. Chairman Pai argued that his move to install a so-called “light touch” regulatory framework is just a return to the way the internet worked pre-2015, never mentioning that net neutrality was instituted that year in response to worries that the free and open internet Americans had come to rely on might soon disappear. (Pai’s right-wing media blitz neglected to mention his previous work on behalf of Verizon, one of the telecommunications conglomerates pushing to unwind net neutrality.)
Broadcast and cable news programs, which Media Matters demonstrated have been conspicuously absent from net neutrality discussions, need to emphasize for their audience what is at stake in the ongoing net neutrality fight. Despite the overall inadequate coverage, there have been several examples over the past month demonstrating how news programs can inform viewers, advance the discussion, and give time to expert perspectives.
On the December 13 edition of MSNBC Live, host Stephanie Ruhle brought on guest Jeff Jarvis who said that rescinding net neutrality would “enable the oligopoly of cable and telephone” to control content on the internet while showcasing Pai's inconsistent approach to regulating the service providers he is aligned with and content producers who might not share his political perspective. Two weeks earlier, during the November 23 edition of MSNBC Live, host Ali Velshi and tech entrepreneur Michael Fertik engaged in a similarly fruitful discussion that provided viewers with specific examples of how telecommunications companies might take advantage of consumers in a world without mandatory net neutrality:
During the November 26 edition of CNN’s Reliable Sources, host Brian Stelter and New York Times reporter David Gelles also delved into the net neutrality debate, and again stressed the ideological inconsistency of the Trump administration’s position. Gelles pointed out that Trump’s threat to block a proposed media merger by citing concerns about competition and consumer choice was directly at odds with his FCC chairman’s decision to entrust the same media titans as caretakers of the free and open internet:
Consumer advocates have long been concerned that an internet unprotected by net neutrality could devolve into a maze of predatory and expensive consumer traps similar to what we see in countries without net neutrality, which do not provide consumers with the same protections Americans benefit from today. The Republican-led FCC has already demonstrated that it plans to use its time during the Trump era empowering corporate interests, fighting for right-wing pet priorities, and ignoring American consumers. Mainstream news outlets need to start making that story clear.