Yesterday the Federal Communications Commission, led by Trump-appointed chairman Ajit Pai, voted along party lines to repeal regulations on internet service providers (ISPs) passed in 2015, commonly called net neutrality laws. In short, this gives ISPs (companies like Verizon, Comcast, etc) more control over the services and packages they offer consumers.
It blows this author’s mind that the net neutrality debate has broken down along partisan lines. The policy is bad news for anyone whose access to information might now be impeded, incentivized, or manipulated. Well, it doesn’t really blow this author’s mind: The partisan split seems, like everything else, to be the standard “Trump did it haha suck it libs!” reaction, and not considerate of the politically agnostic consequences. For instance, Donald Trump Jr. “liked” this tweet that points out Obama appointed Ajit Pai, a Republican, who led the charge to repeal. LOL Obama fail! How does that feel, Libocrites?! It doesn’t matter who appointed Pai, the result is the same. Trump appointed him chairman and tipped the scales Republican, but that doesn’t matter: The policy itself does.
And indeed millions of Americans of all stripes stuffed the FCC website with comments in defense of net neutrality (back in 2014, John Oliver’s audience hit the agency with so many comments it broke the FCC site), but they were joined by two million comments from fake, spoofed, or stolen email addresses, and many of these comments originated from, wait for it…
In fact, this is a rare issue where deplorables and libtards can and should unite, even if that unification is for our right to hold each other in equal contempt forevermore. Luckily for all of us, the end of net neutrality isn’t the end of net neutrality. This will be a slow-moving process, and there’s still time for us to lock arms with people who hate our guts and face down an objectively bad policy. Here’s why and how.
The internet should be the Switzerland of … well, the internet
Net neutrality is a complex issue even for experts. Especially for experts. John Oliver has done a lot of good work on it in a way that makes you keep watching, mostly because he breaks up the important stuff with absurd non sequitur jokes that make you promptly forget the important stuff. But here’s the best quick breakdown I can provide. If you know this stuff, feel free to skip the next paragraph.
Right now everyone who pays for internet basically gets access to the same internet. You can pay more for faster broadband speeds, but that speed applies across the board. In the future, if ISPs choose, they can tailor packages and speeds to their liking. Popular example: If you have Netflix, you might in the future have to pay a Netflix access fee to Verizon on top of the subscription fee you already pay Netflix. If you don’t pay the fee, Verizon might block Netflix altogether, or divide packages into “fast” and “slow” lanes, giving some consumers a suboptimal “throttled” speed on the site that will degrade your experience in a targeted way. For instance, imagine Comcast developed its own Netflix competitor. They would have every incentive and now the right to make Netflix suck on their platform, directing consumers to Comflix or whatever. It would present enormous Comflix of interest (!!!) and frustrate consumers with mob-like practices: “Nice Netflix you’ve got there—shame if something happened to it. Oh, wait, what’s that? You’re willing to pay an extra $20 a month? Never mind, good sir.” This is sort of like it is today with premium cable channels.
But that popular Netflix example reduces these regulations to affecting only our entertainment options, which if it were the only effect would be annoying but not the end of the world. More importantly, ISPs could theoretically control access to information in the same way. They could, subtly and over time, change the places and the ways we get our information, incentivizing consumers to use certain sites of their choosing and dissuading them from other sites. It’s not hard to imagine the damage this could do to our already divided information universes. If politicized media companies such as the conservative Sinclair broadcasting move into the ISP game, or partner with providers, their consumers could be led to the water they want you to drink.
Conservatives: How would you like George Soros to influence your information choices behind the scenes? Money has no ideology, but thanks to Citizens United it’s also protected speech. Anyone can play if it’s good for the bottom line: Koch; Soros; Sinclair; Murdoch; Bloomberg; not to mention Bezos, Zuckerberg, Schmidt, Sean Parker, Cheryl Sandberg, and all those other pinko leftist Silicon Valley zillionaires with a professional interest here. Information will go through cell division, and that should be as important to conservatives to fend off as it is to liberals—unless of course you actually want to swaddle yourself in the things you already believe. Irrespective of ideological alignment, though, we all have to recognize that no matter which side we blame, this division has corroded compromise and shredded our common fabric of understanding to the point we can’t even talk to one another.
If this cell division process happens slowly over a stretch of years, as it will, many people might not notice or care that the information they get is influenced by corporate interests. But not noticing or caring about these consequences doesn’t mean they’re not serious.
These are clearly all “ifs.” Nothing has happened, and nothing will happen soon. And true, it might play out completely differently. Who knows, maybe internet companies will speed up universal access and lower prices for everyone! Right. And there’s a very good chance that some smart company will offer net neutral service and attract a large and devoted following with the same ideology and many other shared demographic qualities—in other words, the kind of defined audience advertisers love. So yeah, maybe capitalism can see it through, but even in the best of circumstances it’s still up to the consumer to choose the best option. Disinterested people will go with price; the ideological and political will retreat into their corners, and voila: The second American secession is complete.
Still, the popular opposition to the FCC’s decision, an opposition led mostly from the left, does seem alarmist: Corporations are going to control your mind! But this alarm is understandable and even commendable in our current political milieu, which seems almost daily to be drifting more and more towards authoritarianism. We should push back as hard as we can and as early as we can, because the changes will be slow, and slow change is convincing by its deception.
That said, we have reason to take heart. For one, there’s the court system. Depending how companies take advantage of these new freedoms, they’re likely to face serious lawsuits almost immediately from groups such as the ACLU, as well as internet giants such as Google and Apple, who just about unanimously opposed lifting regulations. I also imagine determined private citizens will join in. Perhaps this threat will be enough to minimize invasive service practices, perhaps not. After all, the web as we know it has been around since the 1990s, but net neutrality regulations were only enacted in 2015. If everything was fine for two decades, why should we expect it to get worse if we just go back to how it was?
That would make a lot of sense, except the problem is what I just mentioned: The courts. Net neutrality had been a matter of government debate for years before 2015. It even goes back years before 2010 when the first net neutrality regulations were passed, but the big ones from 2015, the ones repealed today (called “Title II” regulations), codified the open questions about control of access, speeds, and fees. The reason there weren’t any problems before 2015 is the economic rule of uncertainty, and corporate providers didn’t want to tinker with what they offered and how—that would risk litigation and also risk expediting a permanent Supreme Court ruling that would likely break not in their favor. Turns out the Obama-era FCC shut the debate anyway, but the recent flip to a Republican-led FCC opened the door for service providers to change their payment and access models legally. But the legality of the regulations still isn’t exactly clear, as the courts haven’t yet ruled on internet access and what rights citizens have, if any, to information.
If you give a damn about anything, you’d demand the universal right to free information.
The Supreme Court rules on the ultimate legitimacy of laws, but creating laws is the domain of Congress. “Oh, that’s dope,” you might think. “Congress has a sterling reputation of working towards objective solutions that cross party lines.” Actually, though, this might be an exception to the gridlock. Yesterday a couple of adults in the room—Susan Collins, Republican Senator from Maine, and Angus King, an Independent Senator also from Maine—submitted a letter to the FCC (in vain it turns out) asking them to delay this vote, citing the possible serious consequences that haven’t been matters of public debate. Note those party affiliations. (Deplorables, this is your cue to discredit Collins as a RINO or whatever. If they’re not always for you, you disown them. This has proved a superb tactic for maintaining a basic functionality of democracy. Keep it up. Please.)
Given the impartial politics of the consequences (aside of being in the pocket of, say, Comcast, which spent more money lobbying Congress than any company outside of defense contractors), it’s not far outside the realm of possibility that Congress in the near future will take the seemingly improbable step of passing bipartisan legislation that checks internet providers, similar to decades ago when they broke up the “Bells” (telecom cyclopses that got too big for their britches and had to be sequestered back in Tartarus). It’s illogical that the internet isn’t regulated as a public utility. Such legislation would truly return us to the normal pre-2015 state of things, when the rules hadn’t been codified but also hadn’t been challenged. De facto, then, things would likely stay that way. Thank god for lawyers.
And if none of this moves you, if you think capitalism will really incentivize improved and fair options for information access, which everybody needs, then you’d also surely be aware that internet giants such as Netflix, Google, Facebook, and Amazon won’t be affected in the least. They’ve got billions of dollars and will be just fine. They won’t be able to innovate new services or products as easily, though, and the startups they like to buy after cool products have been developed and mass-market tested might be priced out of the game and have a harder time, well, starting up. That reduces the competition capitalists hang their hats on. Also, these companies all operate on free-cost models, paid for in terms of data collection and audience share, and these business models might soon not seem so sustainable. But if upstart competition gets priced out, the FCC’s decision augurs an even more powerful tech industry, a landscape dominated by just a few (left-leaning) giants. If you’re afraid of what these companies can do now with their de facto data monopolies, this doesn’t bode well for the future.
So: Deplorables, I implore you, hold your nose, swallow your pride, turn your MAGA hats around, and join your estranged libtard brothers and sisters in opposing this decision. Encourage your representatives, and your president, to reverse the FCC’s objectively bad ruling.