Net Neutrality Supporters Made History Last Week. Does Wheeler Care?

Net Neutrality supporters have filed a record-breaking number of comments on FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler’s plan to allow discrimination online.

The vast majority of the 1,067,779 comments slam that proposal — and urge the agency to protect real Net Neutrality.

But does Wheeler care what the public thinks?

“A lot of these comments are one paragraph, two paragraphs,” FCC Special Counsel Gigi Sohn told NPR. “They don’t have much substance beyond, you know, we want strong Net Neutrality.”

George Washington University Professor Richard Pierce went even further, telling NPR that “the vast majority of the comments are utterly worthless” — and that policymakers tend to favor the industries they’re supposed to regulate.

We won’t argue with the notion that the FCC is too cozy with companies; after all, the agency has a history of fulfilling corporate wish lists.

But here’s the rub: It’s not supposed to be that way.

One or two paragraphs calling for strong Net Neutrality rules aren’t “utterly worthless,” and these comments don’t lack substance. The FCC is supposed to serve the public interest. These comments make loud and clear what the public wants.

And there’s no universe in which Wheeler’s pay-to-play plan serves anyone but the Internet service providers jonesing to control the Internet. (It’s no coincidence that these ISPs are practically the only ones who think Wheeler’s proposal is the bee’s knees.)

In fact, the public’s support for Net Neutrality wasn’t the only thing that made last week historic. Senators spoke out. Former open Internet foes had a change of heart. Advocacy groups like Free Press and Voices for Internet Freedom filed comments skewering Wheeler’s plan. Latino leaders and five prominent organizations representing the Latino community pushed the FCC to preserve the Internet’s level playing field. And that’s on top of all the startups, artists, public interest groups and tech giants telling the FCC to do the right thing.

Wheeler and his fellow commissioners need to get out of their Washington bubble. In fact, they should start holding public hearings on the chairman’s proposal. The public can’t match the ISPs’ financial power — these companies have already shelled out $42 million this year to lobby lawmakers and regulators — but we have a voice on the future of the Internet. We’re the ones who will suffer most if Net Neutrality is destroyed and ISPs are free to do whatever they want.

In the coming weeks Free Press will push the FCC to hold hearings around the country. Add your name to our petition, and click here for more details on what we’re calling the Summer to Save the Internet.

UPDATE: Gigi B. Sohn of the FCC responds ... "My statement that many of the net neutrality comments submitted in the docket were short in length and 'don’t have much substance beyond we want strong Net Neutrality' was not intended to disparage them or imply that they would not be considered by the FCC. We disagree strongly with Professor Richard Pierce about the value of these comments — they reflect the enormous public interest in this issue and therefore are of great value.

As I said earlier in the NPR piece and in my Twitter chat from last week, the FCC welcomes *all* comments, whether long or short and will consider every single one. We are delighted and take seriously that people want to participate and be heard, and we encourage more public participation in the coming months."

Original photo by Flickr user ALA Washington Office