ST. GEORGE – A handful of protesters stood in front of the Verizon Wireless store on River Road Thursday night as part of protests held across the county targeting the company’s support for the Federal Communications Commission proposal to end Obama-era net neutrality regulations.
Established in 2015, the current rules treat internet service providers such as Comcast, AT&T and Verizon as if they were utility companies that provide essential services, like electricity. This applies federal regulations that restrict ISPs from speeding up, slowing down or blocking any content, applications or websites consumers use, thus providing equal and unfettered access.
FCC chairman Ajit Pai, a President Donald Trump appointee, announced plans last month to scrap the regulations through the “Restore Internet Freedom” proposal.
Years prior to his appointment as the FCC chairman, Pai served as an associate general counsel for Verizon Wireless. That connection was mentioned by protesters as an additional reason why they chose to protest in front of Verizon stores.
Pai said the current rules discourage investments that could provide even better and faster online access. Instead, he said new rules would force ISPs to be transparent about their services and management policies, and then would let the market decide.
“Under my proposal, the federal government will stop micromanaging the internet,” Pai said in a statement.
The FCC is set to vote on the proposal Dec. 14.
Net neutrality advocates fear the move to deregulation is a threat to equal access of the internet, as well as be a possible threat to free speech.
“It gives them the power to block websites – to control what you see and what you get to see,” protester Nichole Talbot said Thursday as she waved a sign at passing traffic on River Road.
Other concerns expressed by net neutrality advocates is that rescinding the 2016 regulations will threaten the livelihoods of those whose jobs are reliant on the internet. They also fear the move could hurt the economy.
Twitter, Reddit and 200 other websites and companies submitted a letter to the FCC on Cyber Monday asking the commission to vote against scrapping net neutrality. The letter noted that Americans spent $3.5 billion online on Cyber Monday in 2016, and that e-commerce grew by nearly $400 million in retail sales last year as well.
The letter also states:
Because of the open internet, a web developer can launch a business out of their own apartment, an aspiring fashion designer in Wyoming can sell clothes in Los Angeles or a caterer can find new customers in their town. Because of net neutrality, consumers and businesses have unfettered access to one another, increasing competition and consumer choice. …
… Without (net neutrality), internet service providers will be able to favor certain websites and e-businesses, or the platforms they use to garner new customers, over others by putting the ones that can pay in fast lanes and slowing down or even blocking others. Businesses may have to pay a toll just to reach customers. This would put small and medium-sized businesses at a disadvantage and prevent innovative new ones from even getting off the ground.
In addition the Reddit and Twitter, other signatories include Airbnb, Etsy, Foursquare, Pinterest, Shutterstock, Squarespace, Tumblr, Utah-based Authentise and many others.
Authentise CEO Andre Wegner told the Deseret News, whose company in Sandy provides software for 3-D printing, that he’s worried a loss of current regulation may harm his business.
“Right now, we’re all on the same level playing field but if that goes away, that’s a really big problem,” Wegner told the Deseret News. “If we can’t promise industrial-strength internet service, we can’t compete.”
During Thursday’s protest, Talbot, along with four others, stood on sidewalk with signs calling for net neutrality to remain in place and for passersby to contact the FCC and their federal representatives.
“If net neutrality is repealed, it opens up the doorways for abuse of power and censorship,” protester Daisy Murdock said. “Now is the time to call your representatives and the FCC,” she said.
And just how do some of Utah’s congressional delegation feel about net neutrality being rolled back?
Both of Utah’s Republican Sens. Orrin Hatch and Mike Lee support doing away with the regulations.
Matt Whitlock, Hatch’s spokesman, told the Deseret News Dec. 2 that Hatch is “strongly supportive” of ending the 2015 rules.
“The internet thrived under the light-touch regulatory approach before 2015,” Whitlock said for Hatch. “With a turn away from heavy-handed regulation, the FCC assures continued investment in innovation, essential infrastructure and the content and services Americans rely upon for a growing economy.”
Lee expressed his support for deregulation on the Senate floor in May:
Anyone who has followed the hyperbolic debate about net neutrality has likely heard that the FCC is moving to squelch competition, limit consumer choice, raise prices and perhaps even destroy the internet. That’s my favorite one. At least, that is what some activists and crusading late-night comedians claim.
But none of this is true. Rather, the FCC is reviving the ‘light-touch’ regulatory environment that facilitated innovation and expanded internet access to millions of Americans over the course of many years.
Prior to the FCC implementing net neutrality regulation in 2015, Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, decried the move.
In a February 2015 op-ed submitted to The Daily Caller, Stewart wrote, “There is no better way to ensure a monopoly or enable anti-consumer behavior, than to regulate the industry as though a monopoly is the only option.”
Stewart also said he believes there is widespread agreement that access to the internet should not be blocked or throttled by internet providers or the government.
“On the regulatory side, governments should not delay critical infrastructure upgrades or stand in the way of new high-speed Internet providers.” Stewart wrote.
Echoing a part of his 2015 op-ed, Stewart told St. George news Friday, “I am a firm believer that lawful content online should not be blocked or unnecessarily encumbered.”
As for the telecommunications companies that stand to benefit from an end to the Obama-era regulation, they’ve stated they plan to keep the internet open and accessible.
AT&T executive vice president Joan Marsh said new rules requiring ISPs to disclose their management practices will keep them honest.
“Any ISP that is so foolish as to seek to engage in gatekeeping will be quickly and decisively called out,” she said in a statement.
Comcast said its commitment to consumers will remain the same.
“We do not and will not block, throttle or discriminate against lawful content,” Comcast’s senior executive vice president David Cohen said.
Pai’s plan also restores the Federal Trade Commission as the main watchdog to protect consumers and promote competition.
But Democratic Commissioner Mignon L. Clyburn said the proposal was “a giveaway to the nation’s largest communications companies.”
Pai’s proposal on net neutrality comes after the Republican-dominated commission voted 3-2 to weaken rules meant to support independent local media, undoing a ban on companies owning newspapers and broadcast stations in a single market.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.
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