The repeal of net neutrality is outrageous on so many fronts that it becomes a sort of catalog of the kinds of damage that the administration is doing wherever it can. Here are a few points, one by one.
- Bad policy
As point of departure, net neutrality is the doctrine that separates internet service providers from the content they carry. ISP’s carry bits, content is not their business. End users can access any server on the network, and service providers just connect like anyone else.
Without net neutrality, ISP’s are free to provide service classes and pricing based on server identity, traffic characteristics, or anything else. It’s hard to predict precisely what will come out of it, but one thing is clear. The big ISP’s (Verizon, AT&T, and Comcast) have spent a fortune to get this ability for differential services and pricing, so that’s what we’re going to see. The universal internet is no more. One way or another we’ll be nickel-and-dimed forever.
The net neutrality fight has a long history, going back to the breakup of the Bell System and the regulatory distinctions between basic communications and enhanced services. Telephone companies and later ISP’s have always wanted to use their communication networks for competitive advantage. They’ve also tried to kill new competitive internet-based technologies such as VPN’s, FaceTime, and Skype. Net neutrality has kept the internet competitive and unconstrained, so they’ve fought it for decades. Their cover story has always been that they need extra profits to expand and modernize their networks, but they’ve been doing just fine all along.
With the repeal they’ve hit the jackpot. There are no constraints on what services they can provide, no constraints on what they can do to the competition, and no follow-up to make sure those extra profits benefit anything but the bottom line!
- Supported by outright lies
Here is a quote from the new FCC chairman Ajit Pai (a former Verizon executive) in support of the decision:
“Returning to the legal framework that governed the Internet from President Clinton’s pronouncement in 1996 until 2015 is not going to destroy the Internet. It is not going to end the Internet as we know it. It is not going to kill democracy. It is not going to stifle free expression online. If stating these propositions alone doesn’t demonstrate their absurdity, our Internet experience before 2015, and our experience tomorrow, once this order passes, will prove them so”.
That is an amazing piece of deliberate deception.
The “internet experience” from 1996 until 2015 was net neutrality. It was used to push back against one carrier-sponsored violation after another. (That’s what kept VPN’s, FaceTime, and Skype.) The “legal framework” changed in 2015, because constant carrier legal challenges caused the Obama administration to put net neutrality on a more solid legal footing. There was no change in regulatory behavior in 2015, and the only thing that history proves is that the carriers cannot be trusted without explicit regulation.
Contrary to what Mr. Pai says, his repeal of net neutrality is not moving us back to a pre-2015 world. This is a whole new carrier-sponsored future.
- Selling out the future to the past
It already tells you something that the repeal is a case of Verizon, AT&T, and Comcast against Apple, Google, Microsoft, and Facebook. That isn’t saying Apple, etc. are angels, but they are the current bases of American economic preeminence—as opposed to the technical equivalent of the coal industry. And the situation for new, innovative companies is even worse.
Instead of doing everything possible to encourage innovation, we have behaved as if innovation was the enemy, cutting funding for education and research and shutting down the influence of science in government. This is just one more example.
- Selling out the population to big business
The net neutrality repeal goes under the triumphant title of “The Restoring Internet Freedom Order”.
However the freedom they’re talking about is freedom from public scrutiny. The repeal order punts away responsibility for oversight of Internet Service Providers—just at the time when the internet is becoming a more and more essential part of everyone’s life. It has already become the carrier for most voice services and is in the process of taking on that role for cable.
The repeal gives that responsibility to the FTC, which is in no way equipped to handle that class of issues. The FTC’s own FTC, FCC Outline Agreement to Coordinate Online Consumer Protection Efforts describes nothing more than data to be supplied by the ISP’s. There is no discussion of enforcement for wrong-doing or even of basis for oversight.
Broadband access is anything but a competitive industry—at best there are two players in any locality. As one commentator put it, the repeal is “a wholesale dismantling of oversight for some of the least-competitive and least ethical companies in America”.
- Ideology over reality
In the Regan years Republicans were already gung-ho for deregulation. But at least they used to give reasons why they thought it would work. When they killed the “Fairness Doctrine” for even-handed television coverage, the argument (from former FCC commissioner Fowler) was “the common man isn’t stupid and is quite capable of forming reasoned opinions among a welter of competing voices”. I.e. the proliferation of channels—particularly with cable—made regulation in their eyes unnecessary.
This time there’s no attempt (other than a misstatement of history) to explain why the repeal “is not going to stifle free expression online”. In fact with at best just two broadband carriers in a local area, we’re talking about a concentration of influence that dwarfs anything that existed for television. Without net neutrality we have two gatekeepers—with their own interests—managing the world as we see it. And there is a lot of history to say where that can lead.
- Media censorship
This final point may seem exaggerated, but the threat is real. We’ve just seen that ISP’s have the power. It’s only a question of who wants to use it and how far they will go.
The Trump administration has engaged in anti-democratic policies across the board and has repeatedly threatened news media with legal action to suppress criticism. Repealing net neutrality makes censorship just a matter of directing a handful of carriers.
Given the wide unpopularity of the network neutrality repeal, we have to consider that carrier benefits and Republican ideology may not be all there is to it. Whether or not the Trump people have actual plans for managing the carriers, it’s hard to believe they haven’t thought about it!
So there’s no getting around it—net neutrality is a protection we can ill afford to lose.