Congressman, FCC commissioner (literally) answer students' call on net neutrality

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There’s been a lot of talk about how the recent net neutrality changes will affect students, but little, if any, of that conversation has been with students. Until now.

Jessica Rosenworcel, a member of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), joined Rep. Paul Tonko, D-N.Y., in his office Wednesday on Capitol Hill, and they called in to a high school library filled with a group of precocious students eager to dissect internet freedom with two of the leading proponents of Obama-era net neutrality rules.

The conversation, convened by students at Bethlehem High School in Delmar, New York, and conducted through videoconferencing technology, gave students a chance to ask their congressman and an outspoken FCC commissioner why net neutrality should matter to them.

“We were thinking there was no chance, ever, that [Rosenworcel] would say yes,” Connor Chung, a junior at Bethlehem High, told EdScoop.

Chung, 17, is president of Students for Peace and Survival, a student-run organization focused on social justice and youth activism. It was through that club that he decided to reach out to Rosenworcel’s office — on a whim, he said.

“I thought, ‘Surely, she would have more important things to do, especially now. I’ll just send this email for fun,'” he said. “We were absolutely blown away that it all came together.”

In December, the five-member FCC voted to repeal a 2015 regulations requiring internet service providers (ISPs) to treat all online traffic equally. Educators worry that, absent those net neutrality rules, the internet will become less equitable and less accessible for students and teachers — especially those who live and work in rural or low-income parts of the country.

The discussion — streamed on Facebook Live and then posted to Tonko’s public account — covered questions such as, What even is net neutrality?, In what ways could students be affected by the recent dismantling of net neutrality rules? and How can students get involved in the fight for net neutrality?

The five-person leadership team of the Students for Peace and Survival facilitated a discussion with Tonko and Rosenworcel and occasionally relayed questions from the student audience watching from a nearby projector.

Asked one: “As students, as high schoolers, why should we care?”

Tonko, who is in favor of using the Congressional Review Act to undo the FCC’s net neutrality decision — widely considered a long shot effort — answered first.

“I can tell you that I’ve heard from many, many people in my district about their children’s needs for the internet to be able to do homework assignments, to be able to provide for college applications efforts,” he said. “There are many needs that are met for our young people through the internet. That’s where keeping it open and having the concept of a net neutrality is so very vitally important.”

Rosenworcel — one of two commissioners who voted against FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s net neutrality proposal last month — chimed in after him.

“I think the future of the internet is the future of everything,” she said into a laptop screen, with Chung and another high school junior smiling back. “It’s where we connect, it’s where we create. It’s where you’re going to share ideas, build community and, in time, probably build businesses. I think it’s important we make sure that platform is as open to as many ideas and services as possible — and has as few gatekeepers as possible.”

In an interview after the livestream, Chung said his district — Bethlehem Central School District — began deploying Chromebooks earlier this year, and that his teachers have already been moving a lot of their instructional materials online.

“Technology is having a greater role in education, and technology in education relies on everybody having access to everything,” he said. “That’s why I think net neutrality is very important.”

After 30 minutes of back-and-forth and a few technical difficulties, the president of Students for Peace and Survival asked Rosenworcel and Tonko a final question: What advice do you have for young activists trying to make their voices heard?

“One thing I wish for Washington is that Washington thinks more about the future, and nobody represents the future like you,” Rosenworcel said. “You’ve got a vested interest in what happens next, and you want to make sure that the country that you inherit is one that has lots of opportunities … I think the only way to really make sure that we listen to the future is to make sure the future speaks up.”

That means making noise, organizing, leading letter-writing campaigns and calling campaigns to your representatives’ offices, she added.

“I want you to know that that is part of being effective, and that is part of making a difference,” she said.

Chung said that, in addition to appreciating what the speakers had to say about net neutrality, Bethlehem students who attended the videoconference all left feeling inspired.

“It was an honor that they took us seriously,” he said, ” and were willing to believe in people like us.”

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