Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson: Why I sued the FCC for repealing net neutrality

Published 10:51 pm Thursday, January 18, 2018

By Phil Picardi, Minnesota Public Radio News

More than 20 attorneys general are suing the Federal Communications Commission over its decision to repeal “net neutrality” rules.

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Last month, the FCC overturned Obama-era rules that kept internet providers from playing favorites with loading speeds, like loading some pages more slowly than their own websites and apps, or blocking them altogether. On Tuesday, the attorneys general for 21 states and the District of Columbia filed a lawsuit to block the repeal, including Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson. MPR News’ Phil Picardi spoke with Swanson to learn more.

Comments have been edited for length and clarity.

What is your legal argument in this lawsuit?

Well, “net neutrality” is the concept that all internet traffic should be treated equally by internet providers, that the internet should be free and open and equal to everybody on the same terms.

In 2015, the Federal Communications Commission enacted net neutrality provisions into federal law. More recently in December, the FCC repealed those net neutrality violations. What we’re saying is that the Federal Communications Commission violated federal law, specifically the Administrative Procedure Act, because it was arbitrary and capricious in the manner in which it went about getting rid of net neutrality.

Now, internet service providers have come out and said they don’t plan to change people’s browsing or streaming speeds now that net neutrality has been repealed. They don’t want to anger their customers. What is the concern there?

Internet service providers claim they don’t want to change it, yet they’re against a federal law that would prohibit them from changing it. And in fact, in the past, before we had net neutrality, internet companies have done exactly the kind of things I’m talking about, where they’ve blocked content of potential competitors to be able to favor their own interests.

The concern really here is a consumer protection issue, because the concern is that the price of internet will go up for people when internet companies can charge fees or gerrymander the way in which people access the internet. But it’s bigger than that. It’s really a democracy protection issue, too. The internet is the way that many people access information, and it’s important in a democracy to have access to a wide range of viewpoints to have an informed electorate.

Isn’t all of this something the marketplace can regulate? If you don’t like how your provider delivers internet service, you can switch to a different one.

You know unfortunately, that’s not the case because there really isn’t much competition with Internet companies. You look in rural parts of the state, we’ve got a major problem in Minnesota with broadband access, where many communities have no access to the internet or if they do, you might have one internet provider. Even in many other communities, maybe you have two providers. Well, if either one provider or two providers are doing the same things, you really can’t shop around as a consumer and go somewhere else.

Conversely, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has said that net neutrality has led to less investment in high speed internet infrastructure and made it hard for small Internet providers to stay competitive — such as the rural parts of Minnesota.

My concern is just the opposite, that actually this is going to have a detrimental impact on rural Minnesota even more so, because this isn’t the type of access to the internet — you know, one of the concerns is actually Mr. Pai, who is now the chairman of the FCC, used to be a lawyer for Verizon, one of the very companies that would substantially benefit from the repeal of net neutrality. And one of our concerns in the lawsuit is that the FCC claimed that they were relying on various comments submitted to them to make their determination. And in fact, under federal law, when an agency passes or gets rid of regulations, they have to do it based on evidence and based on facts and what’s in the public record.

Here, we have up to two million fake comments that were filed with the FCC using stolen identities, supposedly submitted in favor of getting rid of net neutrality. My office has received complaints from people who say their identities were stolen to submit comments under their names. And in fact, as many as 500,000 fake comments have been linked to Russian addresses. The Pew Research Center did a study and they said 94 percent of comments submitted in this net neutrality repeal docket were submitted multiple times. And so it’s troubling that the agency relied on, in part, evidence that seems to be fake evidence.

It’s 2018, the next gubernatorial election is in November. Are you running for governor?

You know, people have encouraged me to take a look at the governor’s race. At this point, I’m continuing to do my job as attorney general. We’ve got an incredibly busy docket in the office. We’ve got much activity and right now I’m focused on doing my job as attorney general.