By the time I arrived at the FCC early in the morning last week, Net Neutrality activists had already begun occupying the vacant lot next the agency for their demonstrations.
There was a party-like atmosphere, with a three-piece New Orleans jazz band rocking the crowd as the demonstrators gathered to protest the FCC's elimination of President Obama's Net Neutrality rule, expected later in the morning.
Fun and games, or so it would seem. Underpinning that, however, was a seething rage for the man who would soon put an end to their pet policy.
As with the change of any administration, President Trump's arrival meant new leadership at the top of the FCC. Not only would the agency move to a Republican, 3-2 majority, Trump picked Ajit Pai – an outspoken critic of Net Neutrality – to lead the Commission.
The professional activists, policymakers and pro-Net Neutrality media saw the writing on the wall and seized on Pai as a villain whom they could bash in the hopes of derailing (or, at least, fundraise off of) his anti-Net Neutrality agenda. Since Pai took the reins back in January of 2017, this motley crew has been helter-skelter to make Pai's tenure as rocky and as difficult as possible.
That work turned decidedly ugly by the spring of 2017 and has continued ever since, making lasting bi-partisan resolution on Internet policy all but impossible to achieve in the current environment.
In May, as Pai introduced the agency's Restoring Internet Freedom (RIF) rule making to repeal Net Neutrality, HBO's John Oliver broadcast another one of his infamous (I paraphrase) “don't let corporate America kill Net Neutrality” show pieces, bringing a flood of comments into the FCC, and helping crash (perhaps intentionally) the agency's website. Many of these comments were vicious, racists rants and death threats on Chairman Pai himself.
Later in the month on Mother's Day, front-group Popular Resistance and its activists camped out in front of the Chairman's house to protest the FCC's pending RIF rule making. Activists would repeat the stalking tactic in late November, carrying posters calling out the chairman's children by name and proclaiming, among other things, "They will come to know the truth. Dad murdered democracy in cold blood."
The threats and its dangerous climate led to the beefing up of Chairman Pai's security detail, protecting him wherever he goes, including his home. This is highly unusual, especially considering that the FCC deals with communications policy, not war...
...which brings me back to the FCC meeting last week.
Though the demonstrations were peaceful and, at times, playful, Department of Homeland Security and D.C. Police presence was unprecedented. There were over a dozen security vehicles surrounding the agency, as well as bomb-sniffing dogs inspecting cars as they entered into the agency's parking facilities. It looked like the security team was prepared for battle, or something close.
Turns out they were there for good reason. Just before the Commission's vote to repeal Net Neutrality, a bomb threat had been called into the agency, abruptly stopping the proceeding. The commissioners were quickly escorted out a back door, and the hearing room was emptied for ten minutes so bomb-sniffing dogs could check for explosive devices.
Thankfully, the threat didn't achieve its end. After the “all-clear” was given, the meeting continued, with the Commission voting to repeal its previous Net Neutrality law.
Sadly, like the other threats over the past six-months, there has been virtual silence from Net Neutrality advocates and politicians. This is highly disturbing. Any reasonable leaders guiding such an issue would be running in the opposite direction, actively separating themselves from the bellicosity. Moreover, not only is it violent and hateful, it is anti-prosperity and anti-growth, too.
It seems the Net Neutrality Left has jumped the shark. All tactics are now fair game.
This needs to change.
The FCC's repeal of Net Neutrality is an important step in bringing back the “light touch” regulation which made the Internet explode. Ultimately, however, Congress has to step in and update U.S. communications laws so the agency policy swings of the last several years end. Presently, legislation awaits bi-partisan support in both the House and Senate from Representative Marsha Blackburn and Senator John Thune. However, that work cannot go forward in this toxic environment. Death threats, racist screed and brute-force intimidation do not promote positive discourse – they inhibit it.
Quite simply, the Net Neutrality Left must de-weaponize its advocacy; it stands in the way of allowing policymakers from both sides of the aisle have the space – and peace – to respectfully debate and craft broadband policy so all Americans can prosper.
It's time to end the “fun and games.” Americans deserve better.
Mike Wendy is president of Media Freedom, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization.
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