Net Neutrality: The New Civil War

In the wake of this week’s decision to repeal Net Neutrality regulations, America seems to find itself in complete disarray. As I write this, states are joining in a lawsuits against the FCC’s decision. The states involved though are in many ways different that we might expect. Yes, liberal bastions like, New York and Vermont are — obviously — suing the FCC. But, the list also includes “red states” like Iowa, Kentucky and Mississippi. The states are not unified along geographic lines, but instead seem drawn on intellectual lines. This ideological divide between state law and national law are nothing new. In fact, Americans have fought a battle like this before: The Civil War. Now, as the rhetoric escalates and state governments contend with legislation to battle the FCC’s decision, I cannot help but wonder if the Net Neutrality issue is the modern Civil War.

Of course, people may look at this argument and think that the abolishment of net neutrality has nothing to do with race, and thus to make any comparison is unjust. However, in an article published by Al Jezeera, Creede Newton states that the rejection of Net Neutrality will “deepen the ‘digital divide’ between [the] wealthy and low-income communities”. The article furthermore points out that “Low-income and minority Americans disproportionately find themselves on the wrong side of the digital divide”. Chris Aguh with the non-profit EveryoneOn has went as far as to argue that the destruction of “net neutrality is the FCC’s ‘first step’ in an effort to put the poor at a disadvantage”. This implies that the efforts to destroy net neutrality are not only negative, but systematic in their discrimination. The Hill recently noted that the destruction of net neutrality would cause “outright harm, [for] individuals who rely on telemedicine for health services”. And, who would possibly use telemedicine technology, and therefore be the victims of this outright harm? Well, according to Dr. Christy M. Gamble, Director of Health Policy and Legislative Affairs at the Black Women’s Health Imperative, this will “disproportionately affect communities of color”. If the FCC’s decision is not systemic, it is at the very least, dangerous for low-income minorities. So, on the surface the FCC’s decision does not look as if it disparages others, the truth is that when we scratch that scab we see that it is in fact incredibly dangerous.

But, much like the Civil War, minorities are not the only victims of this. Low income rural citizens are equally endangered by the repeal of net neutrality. And, this might explain why Mississippi and Kentucky are choosing to sue the FCC. Some see Telemedicine as having the “potential to increase accessibility to providers and specialists” and ultimately treat chronic disease. So, if ISP’s are allowed to pull the plug on Telemedicine the citizens who rely on this to help with chronic disease will be put in harm’s way. In the most recent edition of America’s Health Rankings Mississippi ranked 45th because it continuously “faces challenges in food insecurity, poverty and premature death”. Similarly, Kentucky ranked “50th in health outcomes”. So, again, the fourth poorest state (Kentucky) and the poorest state (Mississippi) are victims of a decision made in the name of freedom. So, even if we split victims of net neutrality into poor-white and poor-black, the fact remains that both are victims of the FCC’s decision.

But, of course, the Civil War was not just about the issue of slavery. Some have even argued that the bigger issue was that of state rights. It is here, where the modern analogy is most evident.

Some have argued that Municipal broadband could be the answer to the stripping of net neutrality. But, as much as it “has worked pretty well to provide high-speed internet access to underserved populations” it proves to be no solution to fighting giant Internet Service Providers. The fight against the FCC seems to be a fight that the states must wage.

It is obvious that the FCC and its Saruman-like commissioner Ajit Pai, know this, and are taking steps to see to it that the only institutions (other than private internet companies like Facebook, Google and Amazon) who can do anything are the state governments. Pai however knows this, and the FCC has enacted a plan that “calls broadband an interstate information service, and any state or local law regulating the service could not subvert or undermine the federal policy of deregulation”. In other words, the states, and or municipal broadband ISPs will be in direct violation of federal laws. And, as if stripped from the pages of a Civil War document, “Freedom, not top-down control, is the best protector of a free and open internet worldwide”.

As state after state line up to sue the FCC we start to see the very essence of State Rights. The Civil War was waged on the argument that the U.S.A. is a union of separate states, and could be “annulled if the states are not satisfied with what they receive in return from other states and/or from the federal government”. While the likes of Amazon, Google and Facebook vow to fight net neutrality, the bigger issues seems to be that states are also willing to get in on the dust up. And this is by definition a civil war between opposing state forces. The states are not satisfied with what they have received from the federal government, and a state-level revolt might be the only solution.

On Thursday “a coalition of state attorney generals” pledged to “sue the FCC to stop its rollback from taking place”. Meanwhile, other states are looking to fight the Feds “on their own”. Despite, a new FCC policy which looks to “override local policy makers from pursuing their own laws”. Thus, the Federal government is attempting to control the direction of those states within the union. Eric T. Schneiderman, the attorney general of New York has argued that this is “an attack on all New Yorkers, and on the integrity of every American’s voice in government” and is vowing to “fight back”. The language used in these discussions is violent and aggressive. But, unlike the Civil War, which divided families along geographical lines, the net-neutrality is something with which Americans overwhelmingly agree. In the latest poll 76% of Americans support net neutrality. When was the last time you saw Americans agree on something that definitively? Sadly though, it doesn’t seem to matter. It would seem that once again the citizens of America are being forced to choose sides in a battle.

Tony Romm has written that “The United States is about to go to war with itself over net neutrality”. That is the very essence of a civil war, and the very reason why this confusing issue may very well be the moment that defines America’s future and the 21st century.