As you may have realized, my campaign’s Facebook page was taken down by Facebook for about two weeks, only to be restored late last week. I still to this date have never been informed by Facebook why it was taken down but we can all take a guess it had something to do with a recent viral post. At any rate, the takedown was sudden and out of my control. And there have been reports this is happening with other progressive candidates as well, for example Paula Jean Swearingen.
Much of our Internet communication today is through privately-owned corporate websites like Facebook, Twitter, and others. Since these are privately-owned platforms, they can in many circumstances disable accounts or censor posts at will. Technically, these websites are supposed to follow a “Terms of Service” agreement they provide to you, but these agreements are often filled with legalese that effectively allows them to do anything they want anyway. Facebook took down my page with a very short, vague warning that “This page violated terms of service”, but they have never elaborated on exactly what terms were violated, nor did they ever tell me what I could do to fix the problem if there was one. I was simply stuck waiting for them to decide to turn it back on, which they finally did after two weeks.
In the near future, this sort of censorship can get much worse. Not just social media and communication platforms, but your internet service provider (ISP) such as Comcast or Verizon will also be able to effectively censor content. They can do this by potentially charging you more money to see progressive news websites, or just make your connection to those news sources or my campaign page so slow that you give up before getting to read a word. This is because of a change in federal policy regarding what’s known as “Network Neutrality”, or “Net Neutrality” for short.
The concept of “Net Neutrality” is pretty simple: ISPs cannot interfere with your ability to view websites. ISPs don’t get to play favorites, they have to give you easy and equal access to all Internet content. The ISPs only maintain the infrastructure, they don’t decide content. This protects our 1st amendment free speech rights because you can seek out alternative political candidates, political parties like the Greens, or news websites. This simple concept has been at the heart of the Internet since it was first created. It was designed to be decentralized, to not have any one organization control the whole thing. Without “Net Neutrality”, ISPs become the gatekeepers that can effectively control the Internet, especially as many big ISPs merge with media corporations such as news websites, creating a huge conflict of interenst. For example, Comcast owns NBC, so without “Net Neutrality”, Comcast could charge more to access any news other than NBC in an effort to stifle alternative views and put competitors out of business.
Unfortunately, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has decided to repeal “Net Neutrality” in a vote in late December. This is disastrous for protecting our first amendment free speech rights, as well as a platform that has become integral to our daily lives.
Thankfully there are options to deal with this. The best strategy is to overrule the FCC completely at the federal level. Congress can hold a vote to overturn the FCC decision, and there are plans to hold a vote in two days, on Wednesday, May 16th. So contact your Representative and Senators and tell them you vote to protect “Net Neutrality”.
However, if this fails, we can still take action (and maybe should take state action regardless what happens). Several states including Montana have required “Net Neutrality” at the state level – all ISPs in the state must respect “Net Neutrality”. We can do the same here in Pennsylvania. When elected state representative, I will fight for net neutrality and free speech on the Internet by introducing a bill to create statewide “Net Neutrality”.
Furthermore, since the Internet has become such a lifeline to so many people – as the main and sometimes only way to keep in touch with family and friends, apply for jobs, take classes and learn, or communicate with their government – we need to recognize the importance of the Internet by classifying it as a public utility and ensure everyone has access. Current Pennsylvania law requires landlords to provide a cable TV connection to tenants. We need to modernize this and require landlords to provide fast Internet connectivity to tenants.
Part of the problem in providing that connectivity is that we have so few ISP choices in southwest Pennsylvania, although this problem is hardly restricted to our area. Much of the country has only two or even one option for Internet service, and most of those options have already shown a willingness to violate Net Neutrality in the past. Around Pittsburgh, you are “lucky” if you have two options – Verizon or Comcast – but Verizon decided not to expand into many different neighborhoods, leaving many residents with only one choice, Comcast. If you don’t like Comcast or Verizon, you have no other option. That lack of choice means Americans pay some of the highest rates for some of the lowest speeds in the developed world, despite the US being the inventor of the Internet.
Some cities and states are solving this problem by creating municipal ISPs, that can provide much faster and much cheaper service. Not only is the service better, but more importantly, these ISPs can be established as democratically-run, publicly-owned utilities that allow for much greater involvement and accountability. It ensures resident needs come first, not corporate stockholder needs. Since publicly-owned, they have a Constitutional requirement to defend our free speech online and cannot simply hide behind Terms of Service. Having amazing municipal service even attracts residents and business. For example, Chattanooga, TN created their own municipal internet service and used it to become a fast-growing technology hub.
I would therefore also support state legislation making it easy for Pennsylvania municipalities and counties to start their own democratically-run, publicly-owned ISPs and protect “Net Neutrality”. This should be an option for all municipalities that want to provide better service for residents and business and protect our free speech rights on the Internet.
As for Facebook and other big platforms, strong regulation at a minimum is required to ensure they are not enforcing arbitrary terms of service to stifle free speech or the flow of information. We need to know more about the algorithms used to find and display content and ensure those algorithms are not unfairly restricting legitimate speech and dissent. We need to have a national conversation on how to best hold public debates on the future of our country.