Net neutrality case is about more than FCC rules

July 5, 2015
By Anna G. Eshoo

Even before the Federal Communications Commission adopted its net neutrality rules in February to preserve a free and open Internet, lawyers were drafting legal documents to challenge them in court, and members of Congress were opining on the need for “a clarifying bill” and a “bipartisan solution.” Since then, opponents have worked to delay the new rules by requesting a federal court to stay the implementation. The court denied their petition. Multiple lawsuits await decisions, and in Congress, resolutions and bills have been introduced to undermine the new rules by slashing the commission’s budget.

What sets this policy dispute apart from others? This isn’t solely about private-sector profits or political advantage. How we in government resolve the issue of access to the Internet will color how the Millennial generation of Americans views government’s ability to meet 21st century challenges. It probably will influence their participation in public discourse and perhaps whether they vote. It surely will affect their confidence in government, which research on Millennials finds to be mixed. How are the major political parties faring with this largest-ever cohort of potential voters? Roughly half identify with neither mainstream political party.

According to a 2014 Pew report, these 75 million Americans ages 18 to 34 are digital natives, “the only generation for which these new technologies are not something they’ve had to adapt to.” More numerous than Baby Boomers, these young Americans are defined by attachment to their social networks via broadband connection. If we hope to engage them in the civic and political life of the country, we’d better get net neutrality right.

FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said of the Internet: “It is our printing press. It is our town square. It is our individual soapbox and our shared platform for opportunity.” For the Millennial generation, the Internet represents that and more: social connection and unlimited pursuit of information. The Internet is their clubhouse. For them, it is a socially unifying resource and a constant presence in their daily lives.

Differentiating among online services through the creation of fast and slow lanes brings to mind the indignities of passing through first class, then business class while heading for airline seating in coach — a familiar walk for many younger Americans. Commercializing access to the Internet will not sit right with them. It doesn’t matter to them if such a decision comes from the courts or the Congress. It will further alienate this generation from government institutions. Creating classes of users is antithetical to their open Internet culture.

In the 21st century, consistent access to information is critical for survival, security and mobility. In the “information age,” the Internet offers the route to learning, employment and advancement. Libraries dedicate precious space to making computers available, with designated hours and classes for young and old. Computer literacy enables one to cross over a critical divide in our society. For those not born in first class or business class, that portal to information can determine future opportunities.

Like public education, the Internet is an equalizer. It provides a common starting line and a shared cultural context. Wherever you are when you access it, you can go as far as your curiosity and ingenuity will take you. Net neutrality not only protects access, it protects an evolving online platform whose applications we are only beginning to comprehend and whose limitations are not in sight.

Thankfully, the FCC got it right. Internet access should be guided by a robust set of consumer protections that ensure it remains a competitive engine for consumers and businesses. These basic rules of the road also ensure that the Internet is readily, reliably and universally available. So far, we’re on the right path. If we stay on it, perhaps we can take a small step toward erasing the skepticism younger Americans have about their government. If we continue to treat net neutrality like a political pingpong ball, then we will have demonstrated that their skepticism is justified and our democracy will be the poorer for it.

Anna G. Eshoo, D-Palo Alto, represents San Jose, Palo Alto, Redwood City, Mountain View, Los Gatos and portions of Santa Cruz County in the U.S. House of Representatives. Published in the July 5, 2015 edition of The San Francisco Chronicle.