What does ‘internet freedom’ mean? It depends on what you think about net neutrality.
If you’re confused about what the term “internet freedom” means, it’s not your fault.
In the coming weeks, the Republican-led Federal Communications Commission (FCC) plans to eliminate hard-won regulations that prevent broadband internet service providers (ISPs) from messing around with how content is delivered to your home. To sell the plan to the American people, the FCC is using terms like “internet freedom” and “open internet”—phrases that have historically applied to ideas and values exactly opposite to what the FCC is trying to do. The plan is literally called “Restoring Internet Freedom.”
The FCC’s 2015 Open Internet Order established the legal framework to enforce what’s known as “net neutrality,” a term that refers to a core principle of the internet: that ISPs treat all data delivered to customers equally. That means Comcast (or any other ISP) can’t slow down Netflix in an attempt to get you to use their own streaming service instead, for example.
To have the authority to impose net neutrality protections on ISPs, the FCC reclassified broadband providers as “common carriers” under Title II of the Communications Act of 1934. The FCC’s new plan would revert ISPs to their previous classification and eliminate the federal net neutrality protections that came with Title II.
As you might have guessed, the FCC’s proposal is popular with companies like Comcast and AT&T but overwhelmingly opposed by advocates for free speech online, technology startups that rely on the internet, and opponents of censorship. These ideals, together with net neutrality, are what have been historically known as internet freedom or “open internet” values. Now that Republicans in the FCC are pushing to eliminate net neutrality regulations, however, they’ve begun to use the same language to describe what they want to do.
The distinction here is about who benefits from the “freedom” in “internet freedom.” When advocates for net neutrality talk about “internet freedom,” they’re referring to freedoms that apply to the users of the internet, either people like you or me or businesses like Facebook, Netflix, and the Daily Dot. When FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, a Trump administration appointee, talks about internet freedom, he’s talking about freeing ISPs from government regulation.
“Their proposal increases ‘freedom’ only for the ISPs—freedom to manipulate data flows and steer them towards corporate interests,” David Segal, director of Demand Progress, a public interest group that opposes Pai’s plan, told the Daily Dot. “We, however, think the internet should be structured to facilitate the interests of internet users—not the interests of ISPs. And this plan means far less freedom for internet users to share information, engage in political speech, or start new businesses.”
Still, Pai made the case that his plan does nothing to hurt the traditional definition of internet freedom during a recent speech, and called his opponents liars in the process:
Now in any debate, there are at least two sides. So I’d like to briefly address the main argument that you will hear from Title II supporters. Throughout the discussion that is to come, you will hear from the other side that Title II regulation is the only way to preserve a free and open internet. This is a lie. They will repeat it over and over again, but it’s just not true. And you don’t have to be a regulator or a lawyer to figure that out. You just need to have a memory. For decades before 2015, we had a free and open internet. Indeed, the free and open internet developed and flourished under light-touch regulation. We were not living in some digital dystopia before the partisan imposition of a massive plan hatched in Washington saved all of us.
The next thing you’ll hear is that Title II is necessary to protect free speech. That’s right: some will argue that government control is the key to the ability to speak your mind on the internet. Most Americans should recognize this absurdity for what it is. For government regulation is no friend to free speech, but its enemy. After all, the First Amendment doesn’t give the government power to regulate. It denies the government that power. And anyone who thinks otherwise should remember the wise words of President Gerald Ford: “A government big enough to give you everything you want is a government big enough to take from you everything you have.”
Segal argues that the FCC’s use of “internet freedom” is a sign of a weak political position.
“Having your message co-opted is one of the oldest and most cynical tricks in the book—it’s what happens when the public is clearly on your side,” Segal said. “Polling has shown support for net neutrality is overwhelming, regardless of people’s political affiliation.
“Chairman Pai and large ISPs know that their rollback of net neutrality is wildly unpopular,” he added. “Instead of trying to win support on the merits of their position alone, they’ve decided to try to manipulate the public with Orwellian doublespeak.”
Co-opting language of the opposition appears to be a tactic Republicans often use. (Just look at how the use of “fake news” changed since Election Day.) In fact, when the FCC’s previous attempts to institute net neutrality protections came under attack in 2012, the GOP used exactly the same tactic, with both “open internet” and “internet freedom” falling to manipulation.
By confusing the definition of “internet freedom,” Pai is making groups like Demand Progress, Fight for the Future, Free Press, and the American Civil Liberties Union fight to define the conversation while also defending the principles of net neutrality. Segal is undeterred.
“Public interest groups like ours will set the record straight,” he said, “and make it clear that Pai’s proposal is a fundamental threat to the interests of everyday internet users—and that claiming otherwise simply doesn’t make it true.”