Mr. President, I rise to discuss the Trump administration’s irresponsible plans to dismantle net neutrality. This is a very important and timely issue for Rhode Islanders. The Federal Communications Commission’s—the FCC’s—efforts to repeal net neutrality protections could have a devastating impact on students, small businesses, and ordinary Rhode Islanders who cannot afford to pay higher premiums on internet traffic. I have joined many of my Democratic colleagues in urging the FCC to abandon its reckless plan because it would radically alter the free and open internet as we know it and be an abdication of the FCC’s responsibility to protect consumers.
Net neutrality does something incredibly important. It requires internet providers to treat all data equally. Net neutrality ensures a level playing field for everyone on the internet. It means free and open access to websites and information. Over the past 20 years, the internet has become central to the lives of Rhode Islanders and, indeed, millions of Americans—practically every American. From students completing homework assignments to small businesses conducting e-commerce, or family members communicating with loved ones on the other side of the country or the world, the internet is now our primary means of communication. As such, I believe this is an issue of fundamental fairness and equality of opportunity. This proposed repeal of net neutrality protections undermines the principles of a free and open internet and could be an unprecedented giveaway to big broadband providers, benefiting a few large corporations at the expense of their customers who use and rely on affordable access to the internet every day. Net neutrality protections also ensure that all content is treated equally. Without these rules, large internet service providers may choose to block, throttle, or prioritize certain internet traffic. Without these protections, big internet service providers will be given the power to erect virtual toll booths for some customers and fast lanes for others. As a result, the repeal of net neutrality rules will likely be bad for consumers, businesses, students, and everyday Americans who cannot afford to pay additional premiums for internet access. If these rules are repealed, internet providers can essentially say, if you want a quick download from a Web site, you have to pay more. They can go to businesses and ask them to pay more for this fast service. They can’t do that today. Everyone is treated equally.
This is particularly important when it comes to small businesses. As I go around Rhode Island to small businesses, as I have done these last few weeks, one of the reasons they are growing is because they are starting to take a presence on the internet. They have an internet business; they are beginning to sell across the country or across the globe. A small business in Wickford, RI, East Greenwich, RI, or Smithfield, RI, is not going to be able to pay the same premium for access that Amazon or a big corporation like Walmart can, and they will be squeezed further. The reason a lot of these small businesses are able to keep a store open in Rhode Island—or anyplace else in the country—and employ local workers is because they are starting to see a share of their profit come from the internet. They would like to see that grow, but if that diminishes, then the pressure on them to stay in business locally becomes acute. These are real consequences, not hypothetical. If these rules are repealed and net neutrality is done away with, the consequences for businesses, communities, and individuals will be significant.
Let me make another example. Places of learning like our libraries, schools, and institutions of higher education all rely on offering internet access, which is already expensive. I did a press event at a public library, and they pay significant amounts of money so they have broadband access, and it is a mecca for everyone to come. The head librarian told me that they have people sitting on their doorsteps in the morning before they open and after they close so they can get a broadband signal from the library. Why are they doing that? You can’t get a job today unless you can get online because that is where they post job offerings, that is where you have to send your resume, that is where you have to get the response back when you have a job interview. If you can’t get on the internet, the chances of getting a job today are close to zero. It was a lot different 20, 30, or 40 years ago, when you could go down to the factory, fill out the form, pass it over the divider to the person in charge, and they would give you a telephone call back or you would come back in a few days and see how you were doing.
Local libraries are also the place where students across Rhode Island and the Nation gain access to the internet to do their homework, apply to college and financial aid, and explore the world around them. This is particularly the case in poorer neighborhoods. They can’t afford to have computers or internet in their home. If you go to the public library in South Providence, right next to St. Michael’s Church, in the afternoon, the kids are all there and are on the computers doing their homework. They can’t do that, in many cases, at home. They simply don’t have the access. We are always sitting around here talking about how we have to educate our young people and how we have to get them ready for a technologically challenging world, and then we are about to pull the rug right out from underneath them because that library will not be able to afford access to some sites that these young people need. It is not just the young people who are using the libraries; it is also seniors who want to stay in touch with their families. There are functions that are so critical—as I mentioned before, you literally cannot apply for a job today unless you can get online. How does a person struggling, particularly in low-income, working-class neighborhoods, get online when they can’t afford already expensive service, which could be more expensive if these rules are withdrawn and net neutrality is abandoned? I heard about all of this in detail when I visited the Providence Public Library.
Providence is an urban center, so there are other ways, perhaps, to compensate for access to libraries. But when you go to a rural area, those libraries are especially important. More than 83 percent of libraries report that they serve as their community’s only provider of free internet and computing services in rural areas. If you need free service, the only place you can go to is the library. This is going to put another cost on them at a time when public-private support is being diminished. We have a tax bill pending before us that is going to eviscerate charitable contributions. It is going to take away the deduction. Some of that money goes to our public libraries. If it doesn’t go there, they will not have access. I mentioned small businesses because, as I said, this is particularly critical. We have seen an improving economy, and for a lot of small businesses, that is because they are starting to have a presence on the internet. If that presence now comes with a higher price because the providers can say that if you want to get access and fast downloads, you have to pay X, once again, that X to a small momand-pop business could be huge. That X to an Amazon or Walmart is just a rounding error. We know it is going to happen. It is not fair. It undercuts what we think is the heart and soul—I know it is the heart and soul of our economy in Rhode Island for small business, and it is another big benefit for the well-to-do businesses that can pay more and will pay more. This is not a direction we should be going.
Even more disturbing is that the FCC’s proposed action may be based on a skewed public record. As we all know, under the Administrative Procedure Act, when a rule or change is proposed, they have to take public comments. There are credible reports that bots— the electronic networks of computers— impersonating Americans filed hundreds of thousands of phony comments to the FCC during their net neutrality policymaking process, thus distorting the public record. Their supposedly fact-based and comment-based approach could be fictitious. It could be a product of special interests who decided to link together thousands, or maybe hundreds of thousands, of computers that randomly generated messages—or not so randomly, but deliberately generated messages. What we have done is join our colleagues, and we have urged that the FCC abandon this proposal. As I said, I have joined many of my colleagues in asking, at least, that the FCC delay the vote on net neutrality until it can conduct a thorough investigation to ensure that it has a clear and accurate understanding of the public’s view on this important topic. It is not based on a group of individuals and many electronically linked computers; it is based on the true sentiment of a broad range of the public. At least delay the proceeding until you can assure us that. Unfortunately, that does not seem to be the case. This attempt appears to be part of a larger program the Trump administration is using to roll back regulations that protect ordinary working men and women throughout the country. The Chairman of the FCC, Ajit Pai, and the administration seem to say, very deliberately, that this is their goal. Just roll back regulations, without analysis that is appropriate, without a sensitivity to the benefits as well as the costs.
My view is that rather than trying to limit access to the internet, they should be doing things to make it easier, make it cheaper for small businesses, for libraries, for individual Americans to get on and use the internet, not to take advantage of the rulemaking process to fatten the bottom line of big companies that are doing quite well already. It is clear that the FCC should not vote this week, or ever, to repeal net neutrality protections that have benefited so many Rhode Islanders and Americans. I urge my colleagues to join me in opposition to the FCC’s proposed dismantling of the net neutrality rules. It is important. It is important for our constituents. It is important for our small businesses. It is important for our future generations as they prepare for a very complicated and challenging world, and, for some of them, the only way to get access to the computer is the public library. The only access for a small business to the new marketplace on the net is being able to afford to be on the net. That is all in jeopardy today. I hope we can stop these net neutrality rule appeals, and do it immediately.