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Originally published Tuesday, February 3, 2015 at 4:34 PM

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Guest: Getting a win for net neutrality

The FCC appears ready to flex its authority to prevent companies like AT&T, Comcast and Verizon from blocking or degrading Internet users’ access to websites and other online services, writes guest columnist Timothy Karr.


Special to The Times

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THE Federal Communications Commission, which on Thursday is expected to circulate a groundbreaking ruling to protect the open Internet, has heard more from the public on the issue of net neutrality than on any other matter in its history.

Nearly 4 million Americans have weighed in. And according to data the agency released earlier this year, Seattle had a higher number of people per capita who urged the agency to stand up for real net-neutrality protections.

It’s easy to see why.

Seattle Mayor Ed Murray was the lead sponsor of a net-neutrality resolution that the United States Conference of Mayors approved in 2014. And in late January, the city made nearly half a million dollars available to local groups working to connect everyone to open, high-speed services.

When President Obama spoke out in favor of net neutrality in November, The Seattle Times editorial board urged the FCC to “flex its regulatory muscle and protect the open Internet.” Gov. Jay Inslee tweeted his support for the president’s plan, and U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., said it was time for Seattle “to get loud on this.”

The president wouldn’t have spoken out if not for the net-neutrality advocates — including many in Seattle — who have been active on the issue for nearly a decade. People of every stripe have taken to Facebook, Reddit, Twitter and YouTube to spread the word about keeping the Internet open. Others have camped out on the FCC’s front lawn and participated in street rallies across the country. And people have bombarded the White House, Congress and the FCC with phone calls — so many, in fact, that the agency reached out to net-neutrality organizers and urged them to make the ringing stop.

For ordinary people, the Internet is a tool we can use to connect with others in ways never before imagined. As an engine of free expression, it opens up exciting new possibilities for democracy.

Our advocacy for the open Internet has worked. Last month, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler indicated that the agency would vote on this issue on Feb. 26. The FCC appears ready to reclassify Internet access providers under Title II of the Communications Act — the only approach that gives the FCC the authority to prevent companies like AT&T, Comcast and Verizon from blocking or degrading Internet users’ access to websites and other online services.

With so many people, from the president on down, endorsing net-neutrality protections, one would think the debate was over.

But what seems obvious to people in Washington state isn’t always as clear to those in Washington, D.C.

U.S. Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., and U.S. Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., — the new Republican chairmen of the key congressional committees overseeing the Internet — recently introduced legislation designed to strip the FCC of the authority to protect Internet users. Flush with campaign contributions from the cable industry, these legislators are making a last-ditch effort to stop the FCC from making real net neutrality the rule of the road.

Thune and Upton’s views were echoed recently by the previous chief of staff to former King County Executive Ron Sims. In a guest opinion column in The Times, John Arthur Wilson wrote that the FCC should press pause so that Congress can rewrite its communications laws — a process that would tie up the issue in torturous legislative bickering for years.

Wilson, who now runs a public-affairs agency, seems intent on preventing the FCC from exercising its congressionally mandated authority to protect Internet users.

More action on Capitol Hill isn’t needed. In 1996, Congress already reached a bipartisan consensus on the legal framework needed to protect an open Internet. Since then, Title II’s light regulatory touch has worked well for many forms of communications: Your smartphone’s calls are protected under Title II, which requires a phone company to connect you to the number you dialed.

It’s a framework that would protect our right to connect and communicate online as well.

For net-neutrality supporters, a strong FCC ruling would be a victory that is long overdue. The FCC has the power to do it, and to do it right now.

Timothy Karr is senior director of strategy for Free Press, a nonpartisan media-reform group. Karr, a native of Bainbridge Island, lives near New York City.



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