EFF at 30: Freeing the Internet, with Net Neutrality Pioneer Gigi Sohn

To commemorate the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s 30th anniversary, we present EFF30 Fireside Chats. This limited series of livestreamed conversations looks back at some of the biggest issues in internet history and their effects on the modern web.

To celebrate 30 years of defending online freedom, EFF held a candid live discussion with net neutrality pioneer and EFF board member Gigi Sohn, who served as Counselor to the Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission and co-founder of leading advocacy organization Public Knowledge. Joining the chat were Senior Legislative Counsel at EFF Ernesto Falcon and Associate Director of Policy and Activism Katharine Trendacosta. You can watch the full conversation here.

In my perfect world, everyone’s connected to a future proof, fast, affordable—and open—internet.

On July 28, we’ll be holding our final EFF30 Fireside Chat—a “Founders Edition.” EFF’s Executive Director, Cindy Cohn will be joined by some of our founders and early board members, Esther Dyson, Mitch Kapor, and John Gilmore, to discuss everything from EFF’s origin story and its role in digital rights to where we are today.

EFF30 Fireside Chat: Founders Edition
Wednesday, July 28, 2021 at 5 pm Pacific Time
Streaming Discussion with Q&A

RSVP to the Next EFF30 Fireside Chat

THIS EVENT IS LIVE AND FREE! $10 DONATION APPRECIATED

The conversation began with a comparison between the policy battles of the 1990s, the 2000’s, and today: “What was happening was that the copyright industry–Hollywood, the recording industry, the book publishers–, saw this technology that gave people power to control their own experience and what they wanted to see, and what they wanted to listen to, and it flipped them out…we really need[ed] an organization in Washington that’s dedicated to a free and open internet, that’s free of copyright gatekeepers, and free of ISP gatekeepers.” This was the founding of Public Knowledge, an organization that fights, alongside EFF, to protect the open internet.

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Many think of net neutrality—the idea that Internet service providers (ISPs) should treat all data that travels over their networks fairly, without improper discrimination in favor of particular apps, sites or services—as a fairly recent issue. But it actually started in the late 1990’s, Sohn explained. The battle, in many ways, began in earnest in Portland, when the city’s consumer protection agency told AT&T that their cable modem service was going to be regulated under Title VI of the Communications Act of 1934. This led to a court case where the Ninth Circuit determined that the cable modem service was actually a communications service, and fell under Title II of the Communications Act, and should be regulated similarly to a telephone service. Watch the full clip below for a full deep dive into net neutrality’s history:

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Moving to the topic of broadband access, Katharine Trendacosta describes it along the lines of net neutrality. “It’s not a partisan issue. Most Americans support net neutrality. Most Americans need internet access.” And the increased need for access during the pandemic wasn’t a blip–”This is always what the future was going to look like.”

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But crises like the pandemic do show the dangerous cracks that exist due to the current lack of broadband regulation. For example, Sohn explained, the Santa Clara fire department was throttled during the Mendocino Complex fire, and had nowhere to go to fix the problem. And over the last year, “the former FCC chairman had to beg the companies not to cut off people’s service during the pandemic. The FCC couldn’t say ‘you must,’ they had to say ‘Mother, may I?’” To put it bluntly, said Ernesto Falcon, as access is more critical than ever, the lack of authority leaves many people without recourse: “Three-quarters of Americans now think of broadband as the same as electricity and water in terms of its importance in everyday life–and the idea that you would have an unregulated monopoly selling you water, who wants that? No one wants that.”

In the regulatory vacuum, Sohn said, the states are the new battleground for getting net neutrality and broadband access to everyone–and they are well poised to fight that fight. Several states have passed net neutrality laws, including California (the ISPs, of course, are fighting back with lawsuits). And though the federal government has failed to properly expand broadband access, states can do, and some have done, much better:

The FCC and other agencies have spent about 50 billion dollars trying to build broadband everywhere and they’ve failed miserably. They invested in slow technologies, they weren’t careful with where they built, we have slow networks, and by one count we have 42 million Americans that don’t have access to any network at all. We need to be much much smarter. It’s not only about who gets the money, or how much, or for what, but it’s also how it’s given out. And that’s one of the reasons why I’m favorable towards giving a big chunk to the states. They’ll have a better idea of where the need is.

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This chat was recorded just weeks before California Governor Newsom signed a massive, welcome multi-billion dollar public fiber package into law in late July.

The conversation then went to questions from the audience, which tackled ways to kickstart competition in the ISP market, how to convince politicians to make an expensive fiber optic investment, and ultimately, what the role of government should be in an area in which they’ve (so far) failed. You can, and should, watch the entire Fireside Chat here. Whatever you take away from this wide-ranging discussion of open internet issues, we hope you’ll help us work towards Sohn’s vision of a world where “everyone’s connected to a future proof, fast and affordable—and open—internet.” This is a vision that EFF shares, and one that we believe can exist—if we fight for it.

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Check out additional recaps of EFF’s 30th anniversary conversation series, and don’t miss our final program where we’ll delve into the dawn of digital activism with EFF’s early leaders on July 28, 2021: EFF30 Fireside Chat: Founders Edition.


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About The Author

Jason Kelley

The Electronic Frontier Foundation is the leading nonprofit organization defending civil liberties in the digital world. Founded in 1990, EFF champions user privacy, free expression, and innovation through impact litigation, policy analysis, grassroots activism, and technology development. We work to ensure that rights and freedoms are enhanced and protected as our use of technology grows. Visit https://www.eff.org

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