Commentary: Why it’s time for Texas to show support for net neutrality

  • Mark Surman and Ron Yokubaitis
  • Special to the American-Statesman
Updated June 29, 2017
Former U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julian Castro speaks with Jaclyn Maciel, center, and her sister Adriana at the Booker T. Washington Terrace in East Austin during the Housing Authority’s launch of a digital inclusion program. They girls were working on a coding program with instructor Mercadi Crawford of Skillpoint Alliance.

Net neutrality is the concept that all Internet content — from videos and websites to news stories and blogs — should be equally accessible to all users.

Strong net neutrality protections prevent internet service providers like Comcast and Verizon from slowing down user speeds, blocking certain websites and charging extra for swifter speeds. As a result, net neutrality strengthens innovation and freedom of expression online. Deep-pocketed internet service providers — or ISPs — can’t slow down the competition or block content they find disagreeable.

What does an absence of net neutrality look like? Mozilla and Golden Frog/Data Foundry spent the past few weeks speaking with Texas residents and business owners about how a net neutrality repeal would affect them.

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Catherine Crago of the city’s Housing Authority and Austin Pathways says the Austinites she serves depend on net neutrality to unlock opportunity. The residents earn between $11,000 and $15,000 per year. A recent survey revealed that only 5 percent have an internet connection at home. In response, the Housing Authority equipped these residents’ homes with free basic internet, digital literacy training and an earned refurbished device.

“We’re helping residents connect, so that their children can do homework at home, a light bill can be paid or a Social Security balance can be checked without taking time off from work during the day or long hours on the bus,” Crago said. “Equal access to connectivity keeps families employed (and) educated and helps families become self-sufficient, exiting public housing, making room for the next needy family.”

Andrew Nelson of Open Austin, an organization that champions “open government” policies, says a net neutrality rollback would impact the most vulnerable Texans.

“Without [net neutrality], we not only have to worry about the digital divides that exist now, but also the ones that open up from being poor or in a place that ISPs don’t feel the need to invest or compete,” he said.

Net neutrality matters to any Texan who relies on the internet to access journalism, stream videos and stay in touch with friends and family. It’s also particularly critical to Texan startups and entrepreneurs, who rely on the internet to reach new customers without meddling from big, established players.

This is why the Federal Communication Commission’s plan to gut existing net neutrality regulations is so dire. The FCC’s plan kicked off in May, and the commission is currently collecting public comments on its proposal. They plan to vote on dismantling net neutrality protections later this year.

If net neutrality still seems like the pet issue of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, consider this: Seventy-six percent of Americans support net neutrality, according to a recent Mozilla-Ipsos poll.

In a country where 34 million people already lack quality internet connectivity, we need to invest in solutions that make the web more open and accessible, not more closed and centralized.

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At Mozilla, we’ve been collecting signatures, comments and voicemails from Americans to share with the FCC. The results have been overwhelming: We’ve already received more than 100,000 signatures, 21,000 comments and 50 hours of voicemails.

So, what can Texans do?

Speak up during the 90-day public comment period, which runs through mid-August. A broad network of individuals and organizations are preparing an official brief to submit to the FCC that will express our concerns with their policy during this open comment period. We’re also engaging with civic leaders and policymakers here in Texas to discuss the importance of net neutrality.

We need to make the coming weeks count — for Texas, all Americans and the internet.