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It’s time to take the internet off the free market – and make it a basic right

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Say goodbye to net neutrality. Last week, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) chairman, Ajit Pai, released a plan to repeal the landmark protections enacted by the agency in 2015. This has long been a top priority for Pai and his fellow Republicans, who now enjoy a majority of commissioners thanks to Trump. The vote is scheduled for 14 December, and is widely expected to pass along party lines.

What does this mean in practice? In a sentence: slower and more expensive internet service. Net neutrality is the principle that internet service providers (ISPs) like Comcast should treat all kinds of data the same way. Its repeal means that in the future, your ISP will be able to fleece you in all sorts of new ways.

Quick Guide

Net neutrality

What is net neutrality?

Net neutrality is the idea that internet service providers (ISPs) treat everyone’s data equally – whether that’s an email from your mother, a bank transfer or a streamed episode of Stranger Things. It means that ISPs, which control the delivery pipes, don’t get to choose which data is sent more quickly, and which sites get blocked or throttled (for example, slowing the delivery of a TV show because it is streamed by a video company that competes with a subsidiary of the ISP) and who has to pay extra. For this reason, some have described net neutrality as the “first amendment of the internet”.

Why is net neutrality under threat?

In February 2015, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted to more strictly regulate ISPs and to enshrine in law the principles of net neutrality. The vote reclassified wireless and fixed-line broadband service providers as title II “common carriers”, a public utility-type designation that gives the FCC the ability to set rates, open up access to competitors and more closely regulate the industry. Two years on, Trump’s new FCC chairman, Ajit Pai, a former Verizon lawyer, has pushed to overturn the 2015 order arguing they overstep the FCC’s jurisdiction and hinder corporate innovation. On 18 May, the FCC voted to support a new proposal that would repeal the order and started a 90-day period in which members of the public could comment. A final vote is expected in December.

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When you think of the internet without net neutrality, you should think of the pleasures of modern air travel. You pay for a checked bag, you pay for a modicum of legroom, you pay for a lousy sandwich. The internet without net neutrality will likely look similar: the basics are barely tolerable, and everything else costs extra.

This dystopian scenario is why it’s so important to fight the Trump administration’s agenda. But that fight can’t be limited to saving net neutrality.

To democratize the internet, we need to do more than force private ISPs to abide by certain rules. We need to turn those ISPs into publicly owned utilities. We need to take internet service off the market, and transform it from a consumer good into a social right.

Access to the internet is a necessity. It is a basic precondition for full participation in our social, political, and economic life. But so long as the internet’s infrastructure remains private, the corporations that control it will always prioritize piling up profits for investors over serving our needs as users and citizens. Net neutrality addresses one negative consequence of private ownership, but there are many others. Charging discriminatory rates for data is a symptom – the root cause is the antidemocratic nature of a system run exclusively for profit. The solution is to make that system public, and put it under democratic control.

The idea of a public internet might seem utopian, but it’s how the network began. Our money created the internet, before it was radically privatized in the 1990s. Big companies seized a system built at enormous public expense in order to sell us access to it – the equivalent of someone stealing your house to charge you rent.

The proponents of privatization argued that the private sector would provide better service. But letting the profit motive rule our internet infrastructure has been a disaster. ISPs regularly rank at the bottom of the annual American Customer Satisfaction Index, even lower than airlines and health insurers. Most hated of all is Comcast, America’s largest ISP.

It’s not hard to understand why. American ISPs charge some of the highest prices in the world in exchange for awful service. Your money isn’t being used to build better infrastructure, but to make the rich even richer: Comcast’s CEO earned $33m last year. Internationally, we’re an embarrassment: the country that invented the internet ranks tenth in average connection speeds, far below South Korea and Norway. And that number doesn’t capture the significant disparities in service that disproportionately affect poor and rural communities.

A staggering 39% of rural Americans lack access to internet service that meets the definition of broadband. Nearly half of Americans with household incomes below $30,000 a year have no home broadband at all – especially black and Hispanic households. And even those residents of low-income areas who can afford home internet often endure very slow speeds.

ISPs ignore these communities because they can make more money elsewhere. The human costs are immense: by denying a large swath of the country decent internet service, ISPs effectively cut them off from modern society. And while poor and rural Americans suffer the most, they’re not the only casualties. Everyone hates Comcast: by refusing to invest in infrastructure while charging exorbitant rates, ISPs make urban, middle-class Americans miserable too.

‘We need a socialist agenda for the internet for the same reason that we need a socialist agenda for healthcare.’

‘We need a socialist agenda for the internet for the same reason that we need a socialist agenda for healthcare.’ Photograph: Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

Fortunately, there’s an alternative: municipal broadband. If the most hated ISP in the country is Comcast, the most popular is EPB, a public utility owned by the city of Chattanooga, Tennessee. Consumer Reports ranks EPB the best American ISP, and the reason is obvious: it charges reasonable rates for some of the fastest residential speeds in the world. Also, it doesn’t punish poor people: Chattanoogans who can’t afford those rates are eligible for subsidized high-speed plans.

Publicly owned ISPs can give people things that private ISPs can’t. They can supply better service at lower cost because they don’t have to line the pockets of executives and investors. They can also empower communities to decide how the infrastructure is run, whether through municipally appointed boards, democratically elected representatives, or more direct modes of popular control.

While Chattanooga is the best known example, many communities across the country have built public networks. We should defend these initiatives, and join the movements for municipal broadband in San Francisco, Seattle and elsewhere.

But the political struggle for publicly owned internet infrastructure can’t be won at the municipal level. Chattanooga’s success terrifies the telecom industry, which has lobbied states across the country to ban or limit similar experiments.

Another reason that the campaign for a public internet can’t remain local is that the internet itself isn’t local. Broadband providers are only one link in the chain: moving your data across the internet requires a maze of deeper pipes, the largest of which are known as the “backbone”. Local ownership may be the best model for broadband, but national ownership will be necessary for the internet’s bigger networks – perhaps along the lines of the Tennessee Valley Authority, a federal utility created during the New Deal that brought cheap electricity to thousands of Americans for the first time.

Net neutrality is worth defending, but we can’t only play defense. Just as we should protect Obamacare while pushing for Medicare for All, we should protect the net neutrality rules while pushing for a public internet. The case couldn’t be more concrete: a public internet promises lower costs, faster speeds, and popular sovereignty over one of society’s most important infrastructures. Above all, it promises to make internet access a right.

Bernie Sanders has become the most popular politician in the country by championing these ideas in other arenas. He wants to democratize the provision of healthcare and higher education by treating them not as commodities but as social goods, guaranteed to all as a right.

We should be making the same argument about the internet. We need a socialist agenda for the internet for the same reason that we need a socialist agenda for healthcare and higher education: because it’s the best way to give people the resources they need to lead dignified lives, and the power to participate in the decisions that most affect them.

It’s time to take back the internet, and make the system we made in common serve our common ends.

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