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Cities Take a Stand Against the FCC's Proposed Net Neutrality Rollback

Cities are speaking out against the recent FCC proposed rollback of regulatory power over Internet service providers. Boston, New York City, Seattle and San Francisco have all weighed in.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announcement that the rules around Internet service classifications could bring considerable changes for service providers and their customers, has some cities gearing up to fight back.

“It is essentially the equivalent of a police officer throwing away his gun, Taser and handcuffs, and saying, ‘Well, people were behaving themselves an hour ago, so I'm trusting things will stay as they need to be,’” said Boston CIO Jascha Franklin-Hodge as he described the FCC proposed rule change, announced April 26.

The FCC action would overturn the 2015 reclassification of Internet from an information service to a public utility — or “Title II” — over which the government has far stricter regulatory oversight. The Obama-era rule cited concerns of Internet service providers’ (ISPs) ability to slow Internet speeds for certain types of Web content, known as throttling. In order to ensure what is known as net neutrality, or treating all Web content equally on the part of providers, the Title II classification was adopted.

The FCC recognized the necessity of high-speed Internet when searching for employment or while pursuing an education, and provided the oversight needed to crack down on any sort of paid prioritization. A fair and open Internet is “fundamental for accessing job opportunities and educational opportunities, both for adults and young people,” said Franklin-Hodge. “It is a critical tool for civic participation and it's one of the key drivers of our economy here in Boston.”

Immediately following the announcement by FCC Chairman Ajit Pai of the agency’s intention to roll back the agency's regulatory powers over ISPs, there was a public outcry among open Internet advocacy groups, Silicon Valley tech giants and cities across the country.

“When we have a president in office that seems to not care about people's outcomes or opportunities, it's up to cities at a local level, across the country to stand up and fight for the values they care about,” said Jess Montejano, policy/communications director and legislative aide for San Francisco Supervisor Mark Farrell.

“It's a fight that I think you're seeing cities take a strong position on because we are so close to the people and organizations that are impacted by this change of direction,” said Franklin-Hodge. “But ultimately it's a fight that's going to be taken at every level of the government.”

During Pai’s speech announcing the new rules, he described the Title II rules as antiquated, and cited that the classification was “originally designed in the 1930s for the Ma Bell telephone monopoly.”

Pai’s argument relies on using history as a model for how the future would play out. The “light-touch regulatory framework ... enabled the Internet to grow and evolve beyond almost anyone’s expectations.” This argument, however, ignores the changes in the telecommunications industry.

With service providers increasingly merging with entertainment and media companies, like the AT&T/Time Warner merger or the 2009 Comcast acquisition of NBCUniversal, the past does not predict the future, Franklin-Hodge said. "The telecommunications industry has changed, broadened to incorporate media and entertainment and the regulatory environment at the federal level has changed.” he continued. “But what has not changed is the importance of universal access to the Internet to support participation in the modern world.”

For Montejano, it's "blatantly clear that this is an industry-driven process and the FCC is doing what the corporate lobbyists are asking them to do."

Several other cities weighed in, denouncing the proposed rule changes. The office of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has had no problem in resisting certain federal actions, has been an ardent supporter of net neutrality and an open Internet.

“Net neutrality is critical to the city’s robust and growing tech community, who under the chairman’s plan would need the blessing of Internet service providers to reach digital consumers,” wrote city Chief Technology Officer Miguel Gamiño in a Medium post. “The principle of Net Neutrality —  requiring internet service companies to treat all content equitably  — is fundamental to the promise of the internet as an engine of democracy. ”

Seattle CTO Michael Mattmiller also weighed in on the proposed rule change: “This would be disastrous to a free and open Internet. ... Enforceable net neutrality rules ensure Internet providers cannot disadvantage consumers or the startup companies driving Seattle’s growth.”

Without the Title II classification, the telecom industry would largely be entrusted to regulate itself.

This has led to several cities taking a driver's seat role in protecting the Internet. Seattle Mayor Ed Murray has committed publicly to closing the digital divide by providing high-speed Internet to all its residents. Gamiño also mentioned the revision of the LinkNYC’s privacy policy to ensure privacy and consumer rights.

San Francisco, which has been working on a municipal fiber network, has committed itself to a fair and open Internet.

“Now, more than ever, cities across the country must stand up and fight for equality,” wrote Mayor Ed Lee and Supervisor Farrell in a Medium post. “For more than two years, we have been working diligently to design and deploy a citywide municipal fiber network that will offer more options than currently available and ensure all of San Francisco is connected to a fast and affordable Internet.”

Montejano noted that San Francisco has a unique opportunity to "protect and save the Internet from Trump and his hand-picked FCC chairman,” adding that cities are "always the first line and last line of defense for our residents.”

Regulations for ISPs “cannot simply be based on hope and trust,” Franklin-Hodge said. “It is important for us as a city to do all we can to ensure Boston residents have equal access and opportunities to a fair and open Internet.”

Ryan McCauley was a staff writer for Government Technology magazine from October 2016 through July 2017, and previously served as the publication's editorial assistant.