Open internet advocates pressure US senators before midterms

Thinkful, a group that teaches web coding, has created an interactive map for voters to check candidates' positions.

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    The movement for net neutrality is partnering with tech startups to lobby Congress [Carolyn Kaster/AP Photo]
    The movement for net neutrality is partnering with tech startups to lobby Congress [Carolyn Kaster/AP Photo]

    As the clock ticks on the effort to restore net neutrality, advocates see hope in using the midterm elections in the US to hold elected representatives feet to the fire of the public's demands.

    Net neutrality is a policy that guarantees internet service providers (ISPs) will treat all data fairly without blocking or "throttling" certain data streams.

    In December, the Federal Communications Commission voted to undo a 2015 rule that enshrined the policy.

    But polls show that net neutrality receives bipartisan support. A University of Maryland poll from December showed that 83 percent of US voters support the "open internet", and some legislators are listening.

    Senator Ed Markey introduced on Tuesday a Congressional Review Act (CRA), a measure that allows Congress to use an expedited legal process to review new regulations, to reverse the FCC's decision to end net neutrality.

    The Senate CRA has been at 50 signatures since December, with every Democrat and lone Republican Susan Collins supporting the measure.

    Still, one more Republican vote is needed. "With 51 [votes], we can win a vote," Pierce Stanley, the Technology Fellow at Demand Progress, a pro-net neutrality and civil liberties group told Al Jazeera.

    After the CRA was introduced, the clock began ticking. As of March 1, the CRA has until the end of April to pass the Senate.

    A blow to businesses

    The time limit of the CRA matches the given date for when net neutrality's repeal will go into force: April 23.

    Critics have said the end of net neutrality will negatively affect these startup businesses. Large corporations have the funds to pay for prioritisation of their web services, while new businesses with less financial resources will fall to the wayside.

    Ajit Pai, FCC chairman, a former lawyer for Verizon, a major ISP, said the repeal will be good for businesses.

    Stanley doesn't agree. Demand Progress and other organisations have banded together with startup tech businesses to put pressure on senators.

    On Tuesday, several Republicans received visits from citizens and conference calls from startups dependent on the open internet. Stanely said the interactions were "positive," and a number of Republicans have expressed interest in supporting the CRA.

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    Thinkful, an organisation that offers one-on-one "mentorship" instruction in coding and website development that has relationships with small and medium-sized start-ups across the US, also disagrees with Pai.

    Thinkful's students often land jobs at these startups. Adam Levenson, content manager of Thinkful, told Al Jazeera the end of net neutrality will be a huge blow to both the coders and the businesses that hire them.

    Levenson told Al Jazeera the idea of "fast lanes" and "slow lanes" for the internet could affect their students' abilities to code.

    Most coders don't know every "syntax," or set of rules that govern different programming languages necessary for creating websites or applications.

    "Our students, in addition to utilizing the curriculum we've built, they rely on a litany of resources across the net," Levenson said.

    "The possibility of not being able to access those resources to do your job is alarming for us".

    Smaller startups that have been driving forces in innovation, as well as job providers for many coders, would suffer, Levenson commented.

    'Take Back the Net'

    The prospect of fewer jobs for web engineers, and fewer startups spurring innovation, motivated a team of three Thinkful employees, including Levenson, to launch "Take Back the Net".

    Take Back the Net is an interactive webpage with a map of the US which users can click on a state to see the position on net neutrality of every Congressional candidate in the 2018 midterm elections.

    "We reached out to every single person that we were able to find that had officially said they were going to be running in 2018. Every person was given the opportunity to speak out," Levenson told Al Jazeera.

    It was a large undertaking. There are 469 seats up for grabs in the House and Senate. According to Ballotpedia, which calls itself an "online encyclopedia of US politics and elections," there are 2,271 candidates running for these seats.

    Levenson said Take Back the Net was able to prompt certain candidates to publicly state their position for the first time.

    Dana Rohrbacher, a California Republican whose seat is widely viewed as a toss-up, was one such candidate.

    Rohrbacher told Take Back the Net that "Federal regulation rarely if ever encourages innovation and growth in any given industry". For that reason, he supports net neutrality's repeal.

    "It's hard for these issues to remain part of the dialogue," Levenson by saying he hoped that the revelations revealed by Take Back the Net will keep net neutrality in the public conversation until November.

    Telecommunications lobby

    Even if net neutrality remains in the discourse, a major hurdle remains: tens of millions of dollars from the telecommunications lobby.

    According to lobbying disclosures from the October 1 to December 31, lobbying money from The Internet and Television Association (known as the NCTA, its previous acronym) given to legislators reached $4.3m.

    The NCTA is one of the largest lobbies in the US. Its spending in the previous three-month period was $2.5m.

    Aside from NCTA money, the four largest telecommunications companies - AT&T, Charter Communications, Comcast and Verizon - together spent $10.8m on federal lobbying in the same period, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks political spending.

    The NCTA and the four major telecommunications companies spent their lobbying funds on a variety of issues, though they've all been vocal critics of net neutrality.

    Pro-net neutrality businesses spent a comparable amount of money on lobbying. Google, Amazon and Facebook also spent $10.8m on a range of issues, including the open internet.

    Microsoft and Apple, who are also pro-net neutrality, spent almost $4m on a variety of issues.

    The only viable option

    But Stanley said he thinks small businesses are more important than these "deep-pocketed" multinational corporations: "What the small business get, that big businesses don't, is that CRA is the only vehicle, it's the only likely legislative vehicle now."

    Demand Progress will continue working with small businesses to pressure Republican senators in support of the CRA. Once it passes the Senate, then "all the action gets kicked down to the house," where there's no time limit on passage.

    "Even if they don't have the deepest pockets, they know it's the only viable option" for preserving net neutrality, Stanley concluded.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News


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