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Reddit Co-founder, Congresswoman advocate for net neutrality at Law School event

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Congresswoman Anna Eshoo says Washington, D.C. is the only location where there is still debate about the value of net neutrality.

“People across the country made up their minds a long time ago; 90 percent of Democrats and 80 percent of Republicans [support net neutrality],” Eshoo told attendees of an event called “What the Loss of Net Neutrality Means for Democracy and Innovation,” hosted by Stanford Law School’s Center for Internet and Society (CIS) on Thursday. Reddit co-founder and CEO Steve Huffman, FCC commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel and CIS director Barbara van Schewick joined Eshoo.

Net neutrality is the principle that Internet Service Providers (ISP) like Comcast and AT&T should not be allowed to favor or block particular traffic.

In 2017, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) under chairman Ajit Pai repealed all net neutrality regulations, reversing rules put in place in 2015 by the Obama administration. As a result of that reversal, high speed is no longer treated as a telecommunication service, meaning that ISPs have more leeway to prioritize certain types of content.  

Van Schewick said that as a consequence of removing net neutrality regulations, Verizon was able to “throttle,” or slow down, fire fighters’ unlimited data while they responded to wildfires in Santa Clara County. When Verizon was made aware of the problem, she added, they suggested that the firefighters upgrade their data plan.

Verizon later apologized and claimed that the problem lay in their customer service, not the lack of net neutrality regulations.

Van Schewick argued that the motivation for removing net neutrality rules came largely from ISPs looking to capitalize on their positions as gatekeepers. She said that in 2013, prior to net neutrality regulations being put in place, six large ISPs started using “choke points” to slow down certain games and and videos, only speeding them up if the hosting websites were willing to pay.

“The ISPs have more money, and they definitely have more lobbyists,” Schewick said. “But that does not mean they get to win. They only win if we are silent.”

Eshoo explained that the main argument against the 2015 net neutrality rules was that they inhibit investment with “utility-type regulation.”

“It’s nonsense,” Eshoo said. “What we adopted in terms of the Communication Act is 40 some regulations. We forbade from the majority of regulations. It’s a very light touch.”

Eshoo argued that that free market logic masks the real reason some politicians oppose net neutrality.

“It’s about campaign contribution,” Eshoo added. “There are outfits that have an alarming [number of] lobbyist just for the regulatory agencies.”

Eshoo noted that the FCC chairman Ajit Pai, was previously Associate General Counsel for Verizon.

“I think maybe he still is,” she joked.

Looking forward, Eshoo introduced her current project: a three-page bill that restores the 2015 net neutrality rules. The bill has already passed through the House of Representatives with bipartisan support.

“Congress moves when it is pushed to move,” Eshoo said. “That’s why advocates are the force and power in our country.”

She encouraged the audience to apply pressure to the Senate majority leader to hold a vote on the bill.

Huffman described net neutrality as foundational to the internet and part of the reason for Reddit’s success. His primary concern with removing net neutrality is that it will make the already difficult task of entering a new market even more challenging.

“You think Comcast would have let YouTube survive if they knew what YouTube would turn into?” Huffam said. “People agree on this issue. The only people whom it political for is politicians.”

Contact Paxton Scott at paxtonsc ‘at’ stanford.edu.