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Happy Net Neutrali-versary!

02/26/2016 06:59 am ET | Updated Feb 26, 2016
  • Craig Aaron President and CEO, Free Press and the Free Press Action Fund

One year ago, I witnessed something that may never be seen again inside the windowless hearing room at the Federal Communications Commission: multiple standing ovations.

There was also whooping.

The occasion, on Feb. 26, 2015, was the historic vote by the FCC to safeguard the open Internet by passing strong Net Neutrality rules and re-establishing the agency's clear authority under Title II of the Communications Act.

Which was a long way of saying: We saved the Internet! Woo-hoo!

The vote was the culmination of a 10-year fight over the rules that govern the Internet that saw more than 4 million people -- even the president -- weigh in on the once-obscure issue of Net Neutrality and led to serious charges by John Oliver that the chairman of the FCC might be a dingo.

Well, they say every dingo has his day, and Feb. 26 should be remembered as FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler's legacy-making moment. After the vote, he called it the "proudest day of my public policy life."

Wheeler deserves a lot of credit. He initially put forward a weak Net Neutrality proposal but wasn't afraid to change course when the evidence before him showed he had gotten it wrong. That kind of open-mindedness is all too rare in Washington and why in a few months Wheeler went from public enemy No. 1 to a people's champion.

Wheeler's transformation was all the more surprising because much of his career before joining the FCC was spent as a top cable and phone industry lobbyist. As one snarky critic asked after his nomination: "I mean, can you even think of a time when putting a rich industry insider in charge of a crucial government agency has not worked out for the public interest?"

(OK, that was me.)

And Wheeler didn't just do Net Neutrality. Along with his two Democratic colleagues, he also helped force Comcast to abandon its takeover of Time Warner Cable, stood up for communities wanting to build their own broadband networks, cut unfair prison-phone rates, and has proposed rules that would unlock cable boxes and expand the Lifeline program to cover broadband connections for people who otherwise can't afford them.

If Wheeler steps in this year to stop the wasteful merger of Charter and Time Warner Cable -- hint, hint -- we'll have to start talking about him as the FCC chairman who did more than any other for the public interest.

But let's be clear: Wheeler didn't do the right thing just because "he always had it in him." It wasn't magic, luck or the president's psychic powers.

If Wheeler has turned out to be a diamond in the rough, he was created the same way as any other gem: through heat and pressure.

That's the real lesson we should take away from the Net Neutrality fight. As I wrote in this space a year ago:

Know that none of this happens without a relentless push from the grassroots. The real story here was dozens of public interest groups, new civil rights leaders and netroots organizers coordinating actions online and off, inside and outside Washington.

Artists, musicians, faith leaders and legal scholars bolstered their efforts. And about a dozen mostly unsung advocates in D.C. pushed back daily against the phone and cable lobby. This diverse coalition broke the FCC's website, jammed switchboards on Capitol Hill, and forged new alliances that are transforming how telecom and technology policy is made.

We showed last year that organized people can still beat organized money. We showed that creative campaigns can counteract corporate cash. We showed that we should never settle for Washington's narrow definition of what's possible.

Of course, the fight isn't over yet. In the next few weeks, the federal appeals court in D.C. will rule on an industry challenge to the FCC's ruling. The chances the FCC will win look good, but it's no slam-dunk.

If the FCC does win, the rules will be tested by an array of schemes designed to favor telecom companies' own content and undercut the competition. If the FCC somehow loses, we're probably going to the Supreme Court.

Whatever happens, you can be sure Congress -- despite the undeniable popularity of Net Neutrality -- will keep trying to undermine FCC enforcement and push industry-drafted "compromises" that only Comcast could love.

Meanwhile, the cable industry's coin-operated army will continue marching out of D.C. think tanks and the Wall Street Journal editorial page claiming Net Neutrality is going to devastate investment and hasten the spread of the Zika virus. It's all fear-mongering and fiction, of course; the facts are on our side. (ISP investment is actually up since the Net Neutrality vote, for example.) But AT&T, Comcast and Verizon aren't used to losing.

But they are losing, and we can't forget how we beat them so we can do it again (and again).

That's why you should celebrate this first Net Neutrali-versary and remember how sweet that first victory felt. So pop some champagne as you pop open your laptop. Crank up the Kool & the Gang on YouTube to celebrate that you still can. Go ahead and give yourself a standing ovation.

Then, get ready. This won't be the last time you're called on to save the Internet.

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