Net Neutrality Threatened by New FCC Chair

Heather West is a senior policy manager with Mozilla, a nonprofit that makes the Firefox browser and also takes a leadership role in advocating for open access, privacy, and security for Internet users. A D.C. veteran, West spoke at the Goldman Graduate School for Public Policy February 14, 2017 about the impact of the Trump administration on regulations and practices concerning Internet usage.

Although Mozilla has always been driven by the belief that moral codes are essential to technology, she said that until recently, the tech sector was fragmented politically and disconnected from D.C. That changed suddenly with Trump’s immigration ban, which mobilized more than 140 tech companies to sign on in protest.

“When the tech sector coordinates, it does really well,” remarked West, pointing to the deluge of support during the Obama administration for establishing the FCC’s rules promoting net neutrality, which requires service providers to treat all internet traffic equally and classifies broadband providers as public utilities, giving the FCC authority to regulate them.

This same net neutrality is now under threat by Ajit Pai, the new chairman of the FCC, who has publicly stated he opposes the rules. One impact of abolishing net neutrality, said West, is that start ups would face a greater barrier to market entry than larger companies, such as Netflix, because of the higher broadband service rates providers could charge.

But she thinks that any attempt by the FCC to abolish net neutrality will face barriers, including court challenges and public outcry. In the short time he’s been chairing the FCC, however, Jai has made moves to undo the FCC’s Lifeline program, which provides subsidies to low-income families for Internet access.

Someone asked about a recent incident in which border officials at an airport forced a NASA employee to reveal his PIN number to his NASA-issued work phone. West answered that this request is not illegal but advised travelers to encrypt their smart phones, set up dummy Facebook and other social media accounts, or just get throwaway phones. She said that because the EU takes the position that privacy is a fundamental right, at some point the EU might stand up to the U.S. border patrol policies regarding phone privacy.

“Privacy is a bipartisan issue,” she added, and pointed out that libertarians agree with progressives and many Republicans on the right of digital privacy.

West, who was speaking to an audience of graduate students in public policy and information technology (the latter from UC Berkeley’s iSchool), said that what the government needs now more than ever are IT people. The government IT structure is based on broken legacy systems and built on languages like COBOL, which is quickly becoming archaic. “My personal ambition is to get more technologists to D.C.,” the policy wonk added, before heading back to the capitol to carry on the fight for Internet users.

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