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Here’s How President Trump Could Destroy Net Neutrality

Public interest advocates warn that a Trump FCC threatens internet freedom.

Donald Trump's presidential election victory could have dire consequences for US internet freedom and openness, according to several tech policy experts and public interest advocates surveyed by Motherboard on Wednesday.

The Republican billionaire will likely seek to roll back hard-won consumer protections safeguarding net neutrality, the principle that all internet content should be equally accessible, as well as a host of other policies designed to protect consumers, ensure internet freedom, and promote broadband access, these experts and advocates said.

"Everything we've accomplished over the last ten years is now in jeopardy," said Malkia Cyril, co-founder and executive director of the Center for Media Justice, a nonprofit group that advocates for digital freedom and inclusion. "From net neutrality to broadband privacy to prison phone reform and the Lifeline expansion, that's all at risk now."

As Motherboard reported in September, there is very little material in the public record with which to evaluate Trump's positions on technology and telecommunications policy. On the issues where Trump has taken a public position, he has displayed a disturbing ignorance of technical facts, and a willingness to deceive the public about important policy issues for political gain.

Over the last three years, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler has championed a variety of pro-consumer, pro-competition policies. Such initiatives include the federal government's landmark net neutrality rules, as well as policies expanding broadband access nationwide and protecting consumer privacy.

Wheeler's legacy is now at risk, according to Cyril, who warned that Trump could try to ram through Republican-favored policies that benefit the nation's largest cable and phone companies at the expense of consumers, especially those in underserved or marginalized communities.

"We have just elected a bully who is not concerned with the US Constitution or the rule of law," said Cyril, who was recently honored with the 2016 Pioneer Award from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the San Francisco-based digital rights group. "Trump's presidency could have savage consequences for poor people and communities of color when it comes to internet freedom. Our right to free speech is at stake."

In the wake of Trump's election victory, FCC Chairman Wheeler is likely to step down before the billionaire reality TV star is inaugurated in January. Incoming presidents traditionally have the prerogative to select the leader of FCC, which has broad regulatory power over the nation's cable, phone and satellite companies.

It's unclear whom Trump might nominate to lead the FCC, but Ajit Pai, the Kansas-born Republican FCC commissioner and former Verizon lawyer, is likely to be a contender. Trump has tapped Jeffrey Eisenach, a conservative scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, to lead his telecom policy transition team, according to Politico. Eisenach is a well-known figure in right-wing telecommunications policy circles, with a reputation as a "crusader against regulation."

This prospect has public interest advocates very concerned, because Trump has made no secret of his disdain for federal regulations protecting internet freedom.

"Trump's mix of irresponsible deregulatory policies, coupled with his embrace of utter falsehoods and ignorance about how the internet works, are alarming to say the least," said Matt Wood, policy director at DC-based public interest group Free Press. "Mixed in with all of that is a dash of genuine populism and concern for media consolidation—yet that plays itself out in such utter hostility to journalists that it is hard to even fathom."

A Trump-backed, Republican-led FCC could simply stop enforcing the net neutrality policy, rendering it toothless.

One immediate consequence of Trump's election is a dimmer outlook for AT&T's proposed $85 billion buyout of entertainment giant Time Warner. Last month, Trump vowed to block the deal, warning that it would result in "too much concentration of power in the hands of too few." Setting aside the fact that US presidents don't have the authority to "block" corporate mergers—the Justice Dept. and FCC will review the deal on antitrust and public interest grounds—Trump's pre-emptive stance against the deal helped push down Time Warner shares on Wednesday, underscoring the deal's diminishing prospects.

"Given Trump's campaign trail commentary and his distaste for Time Warner's CNN division throughout the campaign, the odds of regulatory approval appear to have dropped," BTIG media analyst Rich Greenfield remarked, with no small dash of understatement, in a research note to Wall Street clients on Wednesday.

Trump's ignorance about tech and telecom policy was on full display throughout the election season. For example, Trump blithely compared net neutrality to the FCC's old Fairness Doctrine, a bizarre and ignorant assertion for which he was roundly mocked. The Fairness Doctrine, which was eliminated decades ago, required media outlets to afford a "reasonable opportunity" for the airing of opposing views on major issues. Net neutrality has nothing to do with the Fairness Doctrine, but rather ensures that consumers have open, unfettered access to the internet.

Net neutrality can't be torpedoed overnight. The FCC rules prohibiting online fast lanes and discriminatory broadband practices are now US policy, and they can't be dismantled at the whim of an authoritarian president. But a Trump-backed, Republican-led FCC could simply stop enforcing the net neutrality policy, rendering it essentially toothless. That could unleash the nation's largest cable and phone companies, including Comcast, AT&T and Verizon, to expand controversial practices like "zero-rating" that are designed to circumvent net neutrality.

In order to fully kill the FCC's net neutrality protections, Trump will most likely have to work with GOP lawmakers like Sen. John Thune, the influential South Dakota Republican, to re-write the Communications Act to strip out the FCC's Title II authority regulating the nation's largest broadband companies as "common carriers." Or the Republican-led Congress could simply remove funding for the FCC's ability to enforce the net neutrality policy through language in the next must-pass budget bill, which would certainly be signed by Trump.

"We have to believe that a repeal of net neutrality could be on President-Elect Trump's agenda," according to Greenfield.

The expansion and potential abuse of US government surveillance conducted by the National Security Agency under Trump is another area of concern for tech policy activists like Malkia Cyril. "We've just handed over the most sophisticated surveillance apparatus ever created to a fascist," said Cyril. "For those of us who have been organizing around surveillance reform, the most fundamental aspects of how we operate in a democracy are now in jeopardy."

The prospects for the FCC's plan to break the cable industry's stranglehold on the video "set-top box" market are now even more dubious than they were before the election. It seems unlikely that the agency will be able to push through this reform, which would save consumers billions of dollars annually, during the lame-duck period. Democratic FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel's tenure at the agency is also in doubt, because there's now very little reason for Senate Republicans to re-confirm her to serve another term—despite their previous pledge to do so.

Trump's election portends a bleak and uncertain future for US tech and telecom policy. But as the shock of Trump's victory subsides, Cyril and her colleagues aim to regroup and act aggressively to defend the pro-consumer gains that have been achieved over the last several years. "This seems like a funeral for so many things we care about, but it could actually be a rebirth for our movement," Cyril said. "We're going to double down on our commitment to internet freedom and equality for all people."