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Khanna wants tech industry to fight for net neutrality and keep the internet from dying

November 30, 2017
In The News

I remember all too well hearing the term “net neutrality” for the first time. My mind always records for posterity the times when I make a fool of myself.

It was in 1999, at one of those then-ubiquitous conferences that attracted hundreds of techies in the midst of the dot-com boom, that I got my first lesson on the topic. Standing in line with a group of tech stalwarts, I was asked if my publication, then Forbes, would be interested in a column on net neutrality.

I answered, “I doubt it.” Then, when someone asked “Why not?,” I made the mistake of trying to answer.

My foolhardy guess was that it had something to do with the valuation of a company and its net profits and losses.

That’s when I learned net neutrality had everything to do with guaranteeing consumers and businesses equal access to the internet. And I’ve spent a good portion of the last decade researching and trying to educate people about the critical importance of net neutrality for the tech industry, the economy and everybody who spends time online.

Federal Communication Commission Chair Ajit Pai is betting internet users today are as uninformed or confused about net neutrality as I was in 1999. Pai announced earlier this month that he wants to eliminate the strong  protections adopted by FCC Chair Tom Wheeler during the Obama administration.

Pai, a former Verizon attorney, couldn’t deliver a better present to his former employer and its fellow broadband providers — AT&T, Comcast and Charter. They stand to make billions at the expense of consumers.

There’s a reason Comcast in January was called the “Most Hated Company in America.” If you like the way cable companies treat their customers, you’re going to love the internet under Pai’s vision.

Tech entrepreneurs and startups — the people who are the tech industry’s future — despise it. More than 800 signed a letter earlier this year begging the FCC not to kill this driving force behind the innovation economy. Many of them won’t be able to pay higher charges for access to the faster internet speeds. That means venture capitalists won’t be as willing to fund their ideas.

The new FCC chair wants the commission to vote on the proposal Dec. 14. The smart money is on Pai to win the vote, 3-2, unless an overwhelming voice of outrage emerges from the public.

That’s where Ro Khanna comes in.

Bay Area voters sent Khanna to Washington last fall with the hope that he would become a fierce advocate for the tech industry that is so vital to the Bay Area economy. The Fremont Democrat, whose district stretches from Cupertino to Newark, is delivering.

Khanna is becoming public enemy No. 1 for Pai and the corporate executives who support doing away with net neutrality and killing the internet as we know it. On Oct. 26,  Khanna tweeted about the impact weak regulation is having in Portugal. It went viral, Pai’s supporters went ballistic, and Khanna has been doing everything possible since then to fan the flames.

Critics jumped on Khanna for saying “Portugal has no net neutrality regulations,” and they’re right about that. The European Union in 2016 enacted laws forbidding blocking or slowing down internet traffic. But, as Khanna clarified, the EU law left a massive loophole for broadband providers to exploit in countries such as Portugal through the use of what is called  “zero rating”.

Zero rating allows broadband providers to charge a different amount for different access to data. It can benefit consumers by allowing providers to offer certain services for lower costs. But it’s also ripe for exploitation, which Khanna demonstrated is already happening in Portugal.

“The bottom line is there are four forms of net neutrality,” Khanna told me Tuesday. “The strongest form would be net neutrality with a significant ban on zero rating. Right below that is what FCC Chair Wheeler did under the Obama administration: net neutrality with a case-by-case review of zero rating by the FCC.”

The weakest protections, Khanna notes, includes the EU’s law, which doesn’t do anything on zero rating abuses. And worst of all is what Pai is advocating, which is to essentially get rid of all protections.

The guarantee of equal access to information has been the most fundamental gift of the internet. Pai wants to hand over control of access to the executives of a handful of broadband providers whose primary motivation is maximizing profits.

He’ll succeed unless enough people join Khanna’s call to stop him.