By Mike Montgomery
It was crunch time. With less than two hours to go before the U.S. Senate narrowly confirmed the controversial Betsy DeVos as the next secretary of education, a group of prominent Democratic senators huddled on Capitol Hill for a press conference about … something else.
What could have been more important? The so-called travel ban? President Donald Trump’s foreign policy agenda or the onslaught against federal environmental regulations?
No, they gathered to talk about the future of net neutrality and the concern that at some point in the future, the FCC might decide to alter its approach to governing the internet.
Don’t get me wrong: I fully support a free and open internet, but more fundamental issues must take precedence in these trying times, especially when a torrent of constituent feedback can permanently turn the tide on matters of national importance — where focusing on net neutrality today may mean a constituent decides not to weigh in on opposing Steve Bannon’s spot on the National Security Council.
As a parent and a progressive Democrat, I am disappointed to see vital energy and focus diverted from the DeVos vote. On Tuesday, the Senate confirmed the unqualified DeVos to run the department that serves 50 million students across more than 100,000 schools. Why was discussing something like net neutrality, on that day specifically, more important than discussing a contrasting progressive vision for the future of our public school system or supporting actual education voices?
That’s not to say that net neutrality isn’t important. It is and will remain so. But progressives who are also net neutrality proponents should be disappointed that any attention was deflected on an historic and consequential day to discuss what the FCC might do in the future regarding net neutrality.
DeVos was confirmed by the narrowest of margins – and perhaps if senators were focused on that issue and not net neutrality, perhaps there could have been at least one more last-gasp attempt to convince one additional Republican to vote against DeVos. Instead, they were preparing for a press conference that did not need to be held that day.
Unfortunately, what’s done is done. There is no reset button for anyone to push. DeVos is the secretary of education, and net neutrality is in place as firmly today as it was earlier this week.
Net neutrality deserves attention and protection — but it needs a thoughtful legislative conversation to codify an open internet, not press conferences and partisanship. For those who want to preserve the basic principles of net neutrality but are fearful that the FCC will abolish the Open Internet order, it’s time to take this fight to Congress. As we’ve said all along — only by cementing net neutrality into law can the government hope to create a stable environment for consumers and existing and future tech companies alike. We need bipartisan legislation that will remain immune to the whims of any particular administration and survive partisan politics.
Many people I know feel displaced and voiceless in today’s political environment. The last few weeks have shown that activists are finding new ways to express their points of view – but the firehose of issues is unrelenting and daunting. Health care, immigration, education, the Supreme Court, the environment – the list goes on. We all need to remind ourselves that there’s a proper time and place for important debates like net neutrality. Tuesday was not that day.
Mike Montgomery is executive director of CALinnovates, a nonpartisan coalition of tech companies, founders, funders and nonprofits determined to make the new economy a reality.