FIONA MORGAN: Net Neutrality will keep information highway open for all

It’s tough to keep up with the cavalcade of bad policy coming out of Washington, but the expected repeal of Net Neutrality has captured public attention for one reason: Everyone needs the internet, and we need it to be open and free. That’s the net we’ve always known, the one that’s powered our economy, our culture and our sense of what’s possible. If we lose net neutrality, we’ll lose the internet as we know it.

There were more than 700 protests last week in all 50 states. In North Carolina, events in Raleigh, Durham and other cities urged the Federal Communications Commission to cancel a vote, set for this Thursday, to scrap Net Neutrality protections. Most of the protests were held in front of Verizon stores because, before President Trump appointed him FCC Chairman, Ajit Pai worked as a lawyer for the telecom giant. The message from protesters: Pai’s more concerned with what’s best for his former corporate employers than the public.

You could say the same of some of North Carolina’s politicians, who’ve been raking in campaign contributions from the telecom industry while standing in the way of connecting our communities to broadband access.

Under current Net Neutrality rules, consumers get unfettered access to all lawful content. The internet service provider you use can’t block or slow down some websites and services to give preference to other content based on what they want you to see, or what makes them the most money. Those rules, enacted in 2015, clarified a confusing and piecemeal policies, providing clear, enforceable rules to protect consumers and free speech online. The industry fought these rules, contending they would hamper investment in broadband infrastructure.

The facts don’t bear that out. My colleagues at Free Press found that broadband infrastructure investment has actually risen since the open internet order went into effect.

A prioritized-content system hurts consumers AND producers. Anyone publishing information, selling goods, offering services, launching an app, or simply setting up their shingle online could be required to pay a toll to reach the public at competitive speeds. The internet is the marketplace of the 21st century, and taking away Net Neutrality means setting up a new barrier to entry that doesn’t need to exist. That’s why more than 500 small businesses and trade associations across the country, including a dozen in North Carolina, signed a letter telling the FCC that getting rid of Net Neutrality “would be disastrous for the country’s business community.”

North Carolinians can ill afford to have our economic development or our basic freedoms strangled by the telecom industry’s greed. Growth in our state’s economy has been driven largely by the Triangle and Charlotte, where digital access makes technology, biotech and academic research sectors thrive. It’s not coincidental that places where job growth is slow and population is shrinking are rural communities where broadband access is scarce. Communities of color,rural and urban, are also disproportionately left offline due to both access and affordability. Turning the internet into a giant tollway limits economic opportunity and hurts people’s abilities to speak out and organize online.

To understand the critical role internet access plays in the vitality of our entire state’s economic growth — and the lengths the telecom industry will go for the sake of their own profit regardless of public good — look to Wilson. There, the city built a fiber-optic broadband network — Greenlight. It offers blazing fast internet with affordable, transparent pricing. It’s sparked the city’s post-tobacco economy, boosting local businesses and employer recruitment and making the city a more desirable place to live. City officials say they pursued the publicly-financed network only after they failed to convince corporate internet service providers to build one. While those companies refused to invest in local service, they spend big in a successful lobbying campaign to pressure the North Carolina legislature to not just prevent Greenlight from expanding, but also prohibit local governments from setting up their own publicly funded networks.

Current U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis played a key role in passing the municipal broadband ban when he was Speaker of the N.C. House. Tillis received $37,000 from telecom industry PACs in 2010-2011, more than any other state legislator, despite running unopposed for reelection in 2010, according to a 2012 report by the National Institute on Money in State Politics.

Tillis and U.S. Senate colleague Richard Burr continue to rake in telecom industry campaign contributions. The same source reported that Tillis received $41,220 in the last election cycle, and Burr received $58,500. Tillis cosponsored 2015 legislation to overturn the open internet order. Burr and Tillis have told constituents they support Pai’s plan.

North Carolinians won’t benefit from the repeal of Net Neutrality. Our filmmakers, farmers, students, activists, craft brewers and tech entrepreneurs will suffer.

But this isn’t over. North Carolinians need to keep calling Congress and we’ll be showing up in the courts and in the streets.

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