Last week, after being stuck in litigation limbo for two and a half years following its 2018 passage, the California Net Neutrality law finally became enforceable thanks to a February court victory.
And on cue, FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr, POLITICO, The Wall Street Journal and Fox Business were all claiming that the new rules would harm veterans. How can this be?
What’s zero-rating again, and what does the California Net Neutrality law have to do with it?
Many wireless carriers put data caps on some of their customers, though they also offer “unlimited” plans with hidden limitations. It’s confusing by design. But to add to that confusion, the same wireless companies that impose these caps in the first place may lift the cap for certain websites, applications or services. That is, they will “zero-rate” a particular app, saying the data you use on it counts as zero against your cap.
California’s Net Neutrality law prohibits zero-rating in a few instances. If the plan favors the phone companies’ own products — think of AT&T zero-rating the HBO content it owns but not the Disney content it doesn’t — or treats apps in the same category differently, it may run afoul of the new law.
Commissioner Carr and his press allies insist that the California law puts a stop to a zero-rating agreement between ISPs and the Veterans Administration, which let veterans access a specific VA health-care app without running over a data cap. That claim was premature, cynically opportunistic and designed to obscure what’s really happening here.
First of all, as we have said many times — and as our allies Barbara van Schewick and Harold Feld have pointed out in this case in particular — data caps can stop people from accessing the information they need online. This has been a huge problem for years, but it poses a major public-health risk in the middle of a global pandemic.
Second, even with wireless carriers’ data caps in place, none of the flare-up last week about the California law would have happened if the carriers and their proxy at the Trump FCC, former Chairman Ajit Pai, had kept their hands off of the 2015 open-internet rules. While the Obama FCC declined to issue a blanket ban on all zero-rating schemes under those protections, it had the authority to address any complaints about potentially harmful uses of discriminatory data-cap exemptions on a case-by-case basis.
But after Pai launched his effort to jettison those rules, carriers invested untold sums of cash to influence the 2017 Net Neutrality proceeding. Then the Trump FCC did what the carriers wanted, overturned the 2015 rules and left states like California to step in to protect their residents from ISP abuses.
And now carriers are targeting the California law to scare the Biden FCC from reinstating the federal rules and reclassifying broadband as a telecommunications service — which common sense dictates it is.
Veterans benefit from having affordable access to any internet content they want to use. In 2018, Fight for the Future worked with veterans across the country to highlight the importance of Net Neutrality to veterans. Like all people, veterans need access to health care and a whole range of online content and services they choose for themselves — not just the ones that the phone company or even the VA picks to make available at a (phony) discount.
Let’s be clear about what’s happening right now: Carriers and at least one federal official tasked with serving the public are pretending that veterans’ access to health care is in jeopardy. And they’re doing that to score points in a political debate they’ve already lost about whether internet access is really an essential utility. (Hint: It is.)
It’s shameful for Commissioner Carr and wireless carriers to exploit veterans to score cheap political points. The last year has thrown into stark relief how important it is to ensure that people have access to and can afford broadband. And we need an expert federal agency tasked with regulating that essential utility and ensuring that everyone can connect to it.