When the Federal Communications Commission voted to institute strong net neutrality rules in 2015, it was because millions of people from across the political spectrum spoke out. If there’s one thing everyone can agree on, it’s that cable and phone companies shouldn’t be able to screw us over more than they already do, or dictate which websites and apps we can use.
When the Trump administration’s notorious FCC chairman Ajit Pai repealed those Obama-era protections in 2017, the move sparked some of the largest online protests in human history. Net neutrality supporters crowdfunded billboards, protested in the streets, and drove millions of phone calls, comments, and emails to regulators and lawmakers. To this day, the FCC’s repeal of net neutrality remains the government action that received the most filed opposition comments by individual people in history.
Democrats seized on this outpouring of grassroots energy. I stood shoulder to shoulder with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi at a rally outside the Capitol in 2018. Midterms in mind, they portrayed Republicans as corrupted by telecom industry money and vowed that Democrats would restore net neutrality if they regained power. Then-minority leader Schumer stood at the podium and declared, “the American people will be able to see for themselves, clear as day, who really cares about this issue, who really has their back in the Congress.” The message was clear: “Vote for Democrats and we’ll restore net neutrality.”
Shamefully, Democrats are failing to deliver on that promise. The stakes couldn’t be higher: Unregulated telecom monopolies pose an enormous threat to the future of free expression and human rights. And time is running out.
Despite overwhelming opposition from across the political spectrum, Trump managed to get former Verizon lawyer Ajit Pai installed at the FCC and blow up net neutrality within months of entering office. The Biden administration has been in power for more than a year, and they don’t even have a fully staffed commission. Trump rammed through an utterly unqualified commissioner, Nathan Simington, during his final weeks in office. Biden waited months to announce his FCC nominees, and the Democratic controlled Senate has slow-walked their confirmation process, caving repeatedly to delay tactics pushed by big media and cable companies.
The goal of the industry is clear: They want to pick their regulator, like they did with Ajit Pai. And as of right now, it looks like Democrats might let them. There have been some real hurdles with tight margins and Senators absent due to the ongoing pandemic, but the fact remains that inaction and lack of leadership has put the Biden administration’s stated goals–restoring Title II net neutrality, expanding equitable broadband access, and ensuring oversight of Internet providers during the ongoing pandemic–in peril.
While Democrats have sat on their hands, telecom lobbyists have been hard at work. They’ve spent “an unseemly amount of money” fanning the flames of a massive right-wing smear campaign targeting Gigi Sohn, the highly qualified public interest advocate Biden nominated to be the FCC’s crucial fifth commissioner and the tie-breaker vote essential for advancing Democrat’s promised priorities. Gigi’s confirmation should be non controversial. She has massive support from the public interest community, LGBTQ+ organizations, labor unions, and even staunch conservatives like the President of One America News, and Trump’s rural broadband appointee at the USDA, Chad Rupe.
Fox News has repeatedly and falsely attacked Sohn, one of the most prominent LGBTQ+ people nominated by the Biden administration, portraying her as a left-wing radical who wants to censor conservative speech. It’s not hard to hear the bigotry sneaking through with comments on her appearance.
The Wall Street Journal‘s ultra conservative editorial board has published four (four!) misleading editorials opposing Sohn’s nomination. The Fraternal Order of Police went so far as to commission a slanted and ridiculous poll in battleground states claiming that Sohn wants to “defund the police” because she sits on the board of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) who support end-to-end encryption, something the FCC doesn’t even have jurisdiction over. Telecom funded astroturf groups like the Taxpayers Protection Alliance were instrumental in delaying Sohn’s committee vote in the Senate Commerce Committee.
But instead of defending his FCC nominee from these unfounded attacks, President Biden is hobnobbing with bigwigs from the industry that’s smearing her. Just last week, President Biden and Vice President Harris held an event at the White House where they touted broadband companies’ providing lower cost internet plans for low-income Americans (funded by Federal subsidies). “This is a case where big business stepped up,” Biden said during the event in the White House Rose Garden, “these guys are the best.”
Biden is no stranger to rubbing elbows with telecom lobbyists and executives. The first fundraiser he held upon entering the 2020 Democratic primary was at the home of Comcast executive David Cohen. And the telecom industry has a long and sordid history of engaging in the worst of the worst when it comes to Washington influence operations. They’ve paid for misleading robocalls targeting senior citizens, funded astroturf organizations to falsely claim that net neutrality protections harm communities of color, and were caught red handed funding the massive flood of fraudulent anti net neutrality comments that were submitted to the FCC using real people’s stolen information. AT&T was exposed for paying disgraced lawyer Michael Cohen hundreds of thousands of dollars to gain access to the Trump administration.
While in recent years Republicans have largely championed the telecom industry’s interests in Washington D.C., top Democrats remain cozy with the industry’s top brass. Reporting from The Verge in 2017 showed that telecom giants like AT&T, Comcast, and Verizon had contributed more than $45 million to Democratic members of Congress. That number grows year after year. Comcast recently hired Senator Joe Manchin’s former chief of staff, and a former colleague of Senator Sinema. It’s not hard to see what they’re up to.
Democrats have been saying all the right things. One of President Biden’s first acts in office was to issue an executive order that included support for the restoration of Title II oversight authority and net neutrality rules.
But talk is cheap. And if Democrats don’t get their act together and get Gigi Sohn confirmed to the FCC soon, then that’s all Democrats are really offering: empty talking points and broken promises. I guess Chuck Schumer is right: Internet users are going to find out who “really has our backs” in Congress. I hope someone does.
Evan Greer is an activist, writer, and musician based in Boston. She’s the director of Fight for the Future, the digital rights nonprofit known for organizing the largest online protests in support of net neutrality. Follow her on Twitter @evan_greer.