U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden says only an outpouring of public opposition to proposed federal changes can save the internet from becoming an "information aristocracy."
The Oregon Democrat said last week that a proposal by the Federal Communications Commission — now led by an appointee of President Donald Trump — will end the principle of internet service providers treating all data the same, no matter who originates it, what the content is or how it is delivered.
The concept, known as "net neutrality," has been embodied in FCC rules for an open internet since 2015. But in May, the FCC voted to seek public comment on changes that would make "net neutrality" voluntary.
The review period ends in mid-July.
"We are trying to create a citizen juggernaut so that politicians cannot look the other way," Wyden said at forum in Portland.
"I am telling you that citizen pressure really matters — and we have to have it now in the fight for net neutrality. It is a federal policy that embodies the Oregon way and gives everybody a fair shake."
Wyden also took part in a conversation with David Olson, former director of the Portland Cable Office, now the Office of Community Technology. Olson worked for the city almost 30 years, retiring in 2012, and was considered a thorn in the side of the cable industry.
Olson said he was unable to get anyone to speak on behalf of what the FCC proposes.
Wyden succeeded in turning back congressional efforts in 2011 and 2012 to enact bills that advocates said were aimed at piracy, but he and other critics said the legislation would hurt websites and the internet. Neither of the bills, the Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect IP Act, reached a vote in either house of Congress.
A flood of protests helped then, and Wyden said he would promote such action now via a link on his official Senate website.
The current FCC rules for an open internet were opposed by Varadaraj Pai. He was an appointee of Democratic President Barack Obama in 2012, but he was recommended by Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, whose party now holds the majority in the Senate.
Trump named Pai chairman in January and nominated him in March for a new five-year term on the FCC. Although Pai has worked in government, he was a lawyer for Verizon Communications from 2001 to 2003.
"Even if the big cable people follow so-called 'voluntary' net neutrality, I doubt it is going to do a whole lot for lowering prices or increasing speed," Wyden said.
"What the companies are most likely to do, based on their history, is build in loopholes and extra fees — and your prices are going to go up because you do not have strong protections that would push back against that happening."
Wyden said big companies seek to allow what they term "paid prioritization" on the Internet.
"They would allow those with deep pockets to get special treatment on the Internet," Wyden said. "This flies directly in the face of what we believe is a public good.
"What we have is not competition among market forces. We have had this unprecedented spree toward media consolidation. The big mergers are doing the harm to consumers."
Wyden has been an outspoken champion of net neutrality.
"My view is that net neutrality benefits everybody in America," he said.
"It is the principal tool that has been the spark of so much innovation and so much commerce on the Internet. For me, the bottom line is that we cannot let any powerful special interest extinguish that."