Four of the country’s most prominent city tech leaders visited Washington, D.C., this week to discuss concern over the federal government’s handling of a trio of issues: Internet privacy, local authority of public assets, and, most notably, a potential rollback of net neutrality, which the group uniformly opposes.
The trip took place Thursday, Sept. 7, and included a coalition made up of New York City CTO Miguel Gamiño, San Francisco CIO Linda Gerull, Seattle CTO Michael Mattmiller, and Austin CIO Stephen Elkins. Tech leaders from Boston and Washington D.C. itself did not attend the meetings, but organizers noted that they participated in coalition efforts in advance of the day. In Washington, D.C., those present met with congressional leadership to express concern over the three issues on behalf of themselves and the communities they represent. In a forthcoming Medium blog post that Gamiño shared exclusively with Government Technology, he detailed the trip as well as its importance.
The coalition met with staff from Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-NY; and Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-CA, who are the minority leaders of the U.S. Senate and the House, respectively. They also met with staff from the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation chair and ranking member.
The issue the tech leaders took the strongest stand for was preserving Federal Communication Commission (FCC) regulations on net neutrality that bar Internet service providers from slowing down access speeds or forcing consumers and companies to pay more for faster connections or certain types of content. A major concern among cities and other groups is that rolling these rules back would allow corporate service providers to create a tiered Internet that favors large customers with more money, thereby reducing the egalitarian nature of the Web.
Net neutrality was seemingly settled in 2015, when the FCC codified it with the support of President Obama. As with several of Obama’s policies, however, President Trump seems determined to undo that, and he has appointed Ajit Pai as chairman of the FCC. Pai voted against the rules when they were first passed and has called for scaling them back now, arguing that net neutrality constitutes governmental overreach.
Gamiño has previously voiced strong opposition to changing net neutrality, arguing that it is vital for an open Internet, which is itself vital for cities to provide residents with better services and equitable access opportunities. With the support of his counterparts from across the country, Gamiño reiterated this opposition in Washington.
“At each meeting, we presented the staff with a letter in support of FCC net neutrality rules signed by 65 bipartisan mayors representing over 26 million residents,” Gamiño wrote in his forthcoming blog post. “In addition, we highlighted the importance of net neutrality to free speech, democracy, access to information and the growth of small business.”
He also noted that during the week of Internet Day of Action, more than 33,000 New Yorkers weighed in ater the city encouraged them to write to the FCC, and that the total number of citizens who reached out during the open comments period was higher than that.
In meetings with the FCC, the group also expressed concern about the FCC usurping local control of broadband infrastructure siting, which has to do with physically building out capacity for high-speed Internet. Pai has established a working group aimed at a federal streamlining of such work. This working group is to collaborate with the Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee Pai formed in January, all with the goal of encouraging wider broadband deployment across the country.
The city leaders shared a list of concerns with the FCC about federally driven broadband siting during their trip. These concerns included worrying that a one-size-fits-all approach is ill advised because cities are unique and complex, and that the advisory groups need more municipal representation.
On privacy — the third and final issue the group tackled — they expressed concern over a Congressional Review Act resolution that repealed protections for the data of customers of Internet service providers. Trump has supported this legislation, which allows ISPs to sell the personal data of customers. This spurred several states to move ahead with legislation to protect the privacy of constituents.
“While the coalition prefers a national approach, cities have had to act independently,” Gamiño notes in his blog post. “Seattle referenced its recent action to leverage its franchise authority to enact privacy protections for Internet consumers on the local level. NYC cited its current review of its legal authority to implement privacy protections as well as its widespread efforts to educate consumers on how to protect themselves online.”
This trip and the reasons it happened are significant. The cities represented in this coalition — New York, San Francisco, Austin and Seattle — are easily four of the leading municipalities in government technology, and their shared opposition to the FCC’s early moves paints a picture of discord between tech at the city level and a federal government that supports deregulation and issues favored by private Internet service providers.
In all likelihood, this is a disagreement that will not soon go away. Gamiño also noted that the group was representing a larger faction of gov tech leaders, and he called for more to join the cause.
“I’m proud of the work we accomplished as representatives of a larger coalition of CTOs and CIOs,” Gamiño wrote. “We will continue this work because we are not finished. So much more is to come, which is why we need additional cities to join in this effort, to be a part of the collective voice of cities standing up to the federal government on issues that impact the lives of everyday Americans.”
Zack Quaintance is a staff writer for Government Technology. Prior to that, he spent five years working in daily newspapers, and another five years working in the tech sector. He lives in Northern California.