Unless Congress takes action, the Federal Communications Commission will hold a vote on Thursday to eliminate net neutrality rules, which activists say could negatively effect online speech and commerce.
Although a host of hypothetical scenarios can describe the potential impact repealing net neutrality could have on the Internet as we know it, Ryan Singel, a media and strategy fellow at Stanford Law, made the case for why the gun industry and activists should be concerned.
He said his main concern is that repealing the federal rules would allow Internet service providers to limit the reach of or even block content creators — websites like Guns.com or The Firearm Blog, for example. He argued the rules protect the spirit of the Internet because no matter which ISP is used, the user has access to the whole world wide web.
“The current rules protect ISPs from government pressure,” he said, adding that if they’re repealed “I think pretty quickly we’re going to see people figuring out, on both sides of or all across the ideological spectrum, that they could do to their opponents what they’ve done on Twitter and Facebook, which is figure out what the rules are and then get people blocked.”
He said the impact could be greater on those who express opinions that are unpopular or outside of the mainstream. Although social media giant Facebook has already placed restrictions on gun sales, for example, due to public outcry, other websites that host them were still accessible. But if the FCC repeals net neutrality, an ISP could decide to block those sites for similar reasons.
Singel argued repealing net neutrality could also lead to programs similar to Operation Choke Point, a Justice Department initiative that pressured banks to choke off relationships with gun and ammo sellers, payday lenders and other businesses deemed “high risk” for fraud. Pro-gun organizations raised concerns about the initiative and even lobbied Congress to pass legislation to protect firearm businesses from unfair treatment by financial institutions. Guns.com reached out to gun industry trade and political organizations about net neutrality, but they did not respond to requests for comment.
FCC chairman Ajit Pai, appointed to the committee by President Obama in 2012, has taken a largely libertarian attitude toward regulating the Internet, arguing rolling back the 2015 regulations would allow for more competition and in turn lead to economic growth. In a factsheet released last month, Pai addressed concerns that the repeal would allow for ISPs to block websites, saying they “didn’t block websites before the Obama Administration’s heavy-handed 2015 Internet regulations and won’t after they are repealed.” The basis for his argument, according to the factsheet, is that ISPs would have to disclose such a move, would face a public backlash and invite scrutiny from the Federal Trade Commission for unfair practices.
Yet, Pai’s argument falls flat to net neutrality supporters like Singel, who say there need to be rules that explicitly prevent ISPs from blocking content creators because otherwise attempts could still be made and perhaps stick. Singel said ISPs are in incredibly powerful positions because there are so few of them and they operate with little to no competition in most areas, so people may only have one option when it comes to providers. “I think (the argument) just misses the fact that these guys are in such a position of power that commonsense rules that just don’t allow blocking make sense,” he said.
Singel argued that if it were cheaper and easier to start an ISP, there would be more competition and suggested net neutrality might be a different conversation, but that’s not the reality of it. “We have this incredibly great, free market that’s riding on top of a really broken market,” he said.
“I totally get (the argument) to keep the government out of the Internet and I agree with that, but what I also want is to make sure that we don’t allow entrenched companies that can defend their markets without competition from infringing on Americans’ rights to exercise their free speech and to engage in commerce,” he added.
More than two dozen Democrat and Independent senators and a bipartisan group of Congressmen have sent letters asking the FCC to delay its vote until they can understand and verify the 22 million comments submitted during a public commenting period last summer and hold hearings to better understand of the issue.