Buried deep within a leaked 79-page draft of the Democratic National Committee’s 2020 platform are promises to “recommit” to net neutrality and bridge the digital divide once and for all. Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and Senator Bernie Sanders had already outlined similar plans in a joint task force document that was recently released, but this document shows the DNC’s official adoption of its specific goals.
According to the draft obtained by Gizmodo, Democrats will:
“Close the digital divide that deprives more than 20 million Americans of high-speed internet access by investing in broadband and 5G technology, including rural and municipal broadband, and restoring the FCC’s authority to take strong enforcement action against internet service providers who violate net neutrality principles.”
They will also:
“Recommit the United States to the principles of an open internet, including net neutrality, and vigorously oppose efforts to digitally silo off countries and populations from the rest of the world.”
It’s curious that there’s no specific language that says Democrats will “restore net neutrality,” though, or any specific promise to make the policy the law of the land. Instead, the platform leans hard into holding ISPs accountable for actions that hurt consumers, specifically by empowering the FCC. It could be interpreted that the DNC wants to restore net neutrality, but is purposefully avoiding being that specific because it considers the wording controversial to undecided voters. Or it could be that the DNC will not actually fight to restore Obama-era net neutrality regulations, but rather handle things on a case-by-case basis—leaving room for politicians to satisfy their telecoms donors—or call it something different altogether.
In any case, the document cites the ongoing coronavirus pandemic as proof that the internet today is no longer optional (although advocates like the Electronic Frontier Foundation have been making that case for years), and that every household should have access to high-speed, affordable broadband service. “[The internet] is a vital tool for receiving an education and for participating in the economy,” the documents states.
The DNC says it plans to create an equitable broadband infrastructure by increasing public investment in rural, urban, and Tribal broadband and offering low-income Americans subsidies for accessing high-speed internet. “Democrats will take action to prevent states from blocking municipalities and rural co-ops from building publicly-owned broadband networks, and increase federal support for municipal broadband,” they write.
Numerous studies have shown that certain demographics are more likely to lack access to a computer and/or high-speed broadband, and that laws preventing cities from creating their own community broadband only make that problem worse. Not only do these laws keep many students from accessing their classwork during this time of remote learning, but they also prevent competition, which leaves many consumers stuck with a single ISP provider, two if they’re lucky. A lack of internet options allows ISPs to drive up monthly costs and fees without serious pushback from consumers, because who else are they going to go to for internet?
As far as tackling net neutrality, the DNC says it will restore the “Federal Communications Commission’s clear authority to take strong enforcement action against broadband providers who violate net neutrality principles.” That includes stopping ISPs from blocking or throttling service, and paid prioritization of services, similar to what Cox is now doing with its “Elite Gamer” service, which prioritizes gaming traffic for an extra monthly fee in an attempt to reduce lag.
This also raises questions about the ethics of an ISP like AT&T waiving any data overage fees for HBO Max because it owns HBO, but refusing to do the same for other streaming services—that’s called a zero-rating scheme. Zero-rating schemes were once banned by the FCC before net neutrality was repealed, so it’s possible this is one of the things the DNC platform will also help to ban again should it be successful in reinstating net neutrality—although it does not specifically address zero-rating schemes.
The DNC plan also does not say anything specifically about data caps, which were allowed under net neutrality rules. Spectrum is one of the few major ISP providers that does not have data caps, but only because of a court ruling that prohibited it from doing so when it purchased Time Warner Cable. However, Spectrum’s parent company, Charter, is currently seeking FCC approval to let those conditions run out on May 18, 2021, instead of in May 2023, which could allow it to impose data caps.
During the pandemic, we’ve seen that even though a massive part of the U.S. population is working and attending school from home, that did not “break” the internet. In fact, for a few months’ time ISPs waived data overage fees—arbitrary fees imposed on consumers under the guise of keeping internet traffic down in the network—and nothing came crashing down.
Based on the DNC’s document, it’s also not totally clear how 5G regulation fits into the picture. Companies like Verizon and AT&T only just stopped airing misleading advertisements about their 5G coverage, where it’s available and what speeds consumers can expect. The “magic” of 5G comes from its ability to transmit data wireless at gigabit speeds, and that you could make 5G devices, like laptops, that can connect to the network. But 5G signals, or millimeter wave, is y easily distorted by physical objects, andit would be incredibly expensive to build enough towers in a short enough period of time to close the digital divide.
It’s a good thing the DNC’s plan is focused on eliminating the red tape that prevents so many cities from establishing their own community broadband. There’s still time to edit the document, too, so we could see Democrats go further than (or back down from) the commitments they make in this version. If they actually go a step further and restore net neutrality, that seems like the best way to finally treat the internet as a public utility and get every single household in the U.S. online.