Despite his use of Twitter, Donald Trump is not a big internet user. He “very rarely” emails anyone, according to a 2013 testimony, and dictates his tweets to his aides. He’s referred to the internet as “the cyber” during the 2016 presidential debates, suggesting that he isn’t completely au fait with the modern web and related terminology.
But in his role as president, Trump is in charge of some of the most sophisticated communications technology in the world. He’s also indirectly in charge of the Federal Communications Commission, the United States’ communications regulator. And it’s the FCC that’s responsible for setting policies on net neutrality, an issue that Barack Obama wrestled with for several years.
Despite not making any overt statements on net neutrality so far, we can deduce Trump’s likely position based on his actions pre- and post-election.
Obama’s Net Neutrality Legacy
Net neutrality is the concept that all websites and services should be treated equally. It’s been a fundamental principle of the World Wide Web since it was originally conceived in the 1990s.
But some content providers would prefer to be able to pay extra to gain an advantage over competing providers. For example, a company offering movie streaming over its website could pay an ISP to boost network speeds for its content, giving it an advantage over competitors streaming the same films.
Barack Obama believed that the internet should be treated as a utility, and regulated in the same way as water companies and other essential services. This would prevent any company from paying extra for higher speeds, keeping the web open and neutral.
But his position was controversial, and there are signs that Obama’s work on net neutrality is being undone. Generally speaking, Democrats believe in the concept of net neutrality, but Republicans believe that it stifles competition.
A Primer on the Fairness Doctrine
The Fairness Doctrine was a US law that required broadcasters who discuss current affairs to give equal airtime to opposing views on those issues. The law was introduced in 1949 under President Truman, and repealed in 1987 under President Reagan.
The Fairness Doctrine was unpopular with many conservatives and libertarians who said that it infringed on the protections provided by the First Amendment, and may influence journalists’ work. But others believe that the Fairness Doctrine helped to prevent what we now call “fake news.”
The debate about the Fairness Doctrine has been re-ignited in the age of net neutrality discussion, and the debate about how much control the government should have over press and communication.
Trump’s views about the Fairness Doctrine are the clearest signal we have about his view of net neutrality. Like many of Trump’s policies, his statement was issued in a tweet:
Obama’s attack on the internet is another top down power grab. Net neutrality is the Fairness Doctrine. Will target conservative media.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 12, 2014
The Timeline So Far
Because we need some context for Trump’s statements on net neutrality, this timeline also includes other news.
May 2014: the FCC proposes light touch regulation on the internet. Barack Obama responds that the proposal does not go far enough to ensure an open internet.
November 11, 2014: Barack Obama makes a video statement urging “the strongest possible rules” to protect the open internet. He calls for internet service to be regulated as a utility.
Tim Wheeler, then head of the FCC, agrees that the internet must remain an “open platform.”
November 12, 2014: Trump tweets the only clear public statement he has made about net neutrality so far, directly equating net neutrality with the Fairness Doctrine, and speculating that net neutrality will “target conservative media.”
February 25, 2015: new FCC net neutrality rules reclassify the internet as a utility in the US.
Then FCC member (now chairman) Ajit Pai breaks ranks, calling the new rules “a monumental shift towards government control of the internet.”
December 8, 2015: Donald Trump states at a rally that the US needs to look at “closing the internet up in some ways,” and dismisses the idea that restricting the use of the internet would limit freedom of speech.
June 14, 2016: an appeal launched by a group of telecommunications companies reaches the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit. The court upholds Obama’s new FCC rules.
October 10, 2016: writing on the WBUR blog, author Steve Almond says Hillary Clinton should reinstate the Fairness Doctrine if she is elected. He says that he believes many Republican voters have been misinformed by propaganda, and a new version of the Fairness Doctrine would help to address the issue.
November 20, 2016: President-elect Trump requests “equal time” for his viewpoint after watching a Saturday Night Live skit. The Equal Time Rule ensures that political candidates must receive equal exposure to the opposition on request.
However, the rule only applies to political candidates and is not applicable once an election is over. It is not the same as the Fairness Doctrine.
January 23, 2017: Ajit Pai, the vocal opponent of net neutrality, is confirmed as the new head of the FCC. With this appointment, Donald Trump sends out the clearest signal yet regarding his views on net neutrality.
The media expects Obama’s net neutrality rules to be reversed sometime in 2018.
Donald Trump may not have a clear position on the issue — at least as far as his Twitter feed goes. But his comments and appointment of Ajit Pai to head the FCC certainly indicate a desire to change Obama’s net neutrality laws and make bandwidth and speed a commodity.
Net neutrality remains a contentious issue, however. Even if the FCC changes course on net neutrality, it could be changed back by the next president. We are still a long way away from consensus on the issue.