After the FCC’s Republican majority voted successfully to repeal net neutrality protections last week, Rep. Marsha Blackburn gleefully applauded the outcome, cheering what she called the beginnings of a “light-touch regulatory regime.” As chair of the House Energy Subcommittee on Communications and Technology, which is charged with the oversight and funding of the Federal Communications Commission itself, Blackburn, perhaps more than any other member of Congress, deserves credit for enabling last week’s vote to proceed.
A fierce advocate of Ajit Pai’s, the Donald Trump-appointed FCC chair and architect of the net neutrality repeal, Blackburn is adamantly opposed to rules that prohibit ISPs like Verizon from censoring websites or charging internet-content companies like Netflix fees to reach customers—rules that she often characterizes as a “regulatory nuclear option.”
Seeking to cement the ability of the ISPs to impose new fees on internet customers and carve up the internet into fast and slow lanes (known in the industry as “paid prioritization”), Blackburn announced her own bill Tuesday night, which—with the aid of lazy reporters at august news publications—she’s masquerading as a “net neutrality” bill. Having witnessed the backlash against the FCC’s vote over the past few days, and with Democrats swiftly mobilizing to campaign on the issue next year, it will be interesting to see just how many of Blackburn’s GOP colleagues join her cause.
To get an idea of how much power Blackburn believes ISPs should have, we turn to an interview she gave CNN last winter when allegations of “fake news” influencing the presidential election were still fresh. It was during this interview, which took place less than a month after the November 8 elections, that Blackburn suggested giving Verizon, Comcast, AT&T, and other leading broadband carriers the authority to vet and censor information viewed by American voters online.
Internet providers have an “obligation,” she said, to get fake news “off the web.”
The fact that Americans can hardly agree on what constitutes “fake news” notwithstanding, the notion that AT&T should be obligated to censor the internet ranks high on the list of the dumbest ideas any lawmaker has ever had with regard to internet regulation. As you can imagine, Blackburn’s idea of “fake news” likely varies greatly from those who don’t share her political views.
“[M]aybe it’s time for these information systems to look to have some type of news editor that is doing some vetting on that,” she told CNN. (By “information systems” Blackburn meant “internet providers.”)
To get an idea of what a “news editor” employed by an ISP might look like, we needn’t rely solely on our imaginations. A few years ago, Verizon tried to establish its own tech news site called SugarString, ostensibly to compete with Gizmodo, Ars Technica, and others in the arena.
I was sitting in a Manhattan office when a former colleague got a job offer from the site, and though taking it would have significantly padded his bank account, there were conditions in the contract that made his stomach turn.
“In exchange for the major corporate backing, tech reporters at SugarString are expressly forbidden from writing about American spying or net neutrality around the world, two of the biggest issues in tech and politics today,” he wrote in a report outing Verizon’s plan.
In addition to the obvious qualms Verizon had about net neutrality, the company was at the time caught in the midst of a controversy sparked by the Edward Snowden leaks, which revealed Verizon’s silent participation in a secret surveillance program conducted by the National Security Agency (NSA).
To write for Verizon’s “news” site, which thankfully never came to fruition, reporters would have had to avoid mentioning two ongoing stories that threatened Verizon’s integrity—incidentally, the two biggest news stories of the year. That example alone is reason enough to not hand ISPs the power to censor the news or anything else on the internet.
Blackburn’s call to give profit-driven internet providers the power to decide what news you read and what information gets swept under the rug was reckless and imperiling to the very foundation on which the First Amendment was written—even moreso when you consider that the companies she champions spend millions upon millions of dollars each year to influence members of Congress like her.
Blackburn’s idea of freedom, it seems, is less aligned with James Madison’s and more aligned with the architects of the Great Firewall of China. And lawmakers who allow Blackburn to dictate the internet’s framework do so at their own peril—and ours.
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