The Internet has become an integral part of modern human society. We use it to communicate with others, to buy and sell goods and to inform and entertain ourselves. It has become an extension of our minds and makes great things possible.
The Internet in its current form is made possible because of the principle of net neutrality. This means that all data is treated the same and those who control or regulate the infrastructure cannot discriminate or charge by user, content, website, platform, application, type of attached equipment or method of communication. Users merely pay for access and bandwidth, and what is transmitted and received is generally unrestricted. Some efforts are made to suppress illegal content, such as child pornography and hate speech. And some efforts are made to restrict illegal file sharing.
It sounds almost like something the founding fathers would have put into the Bill of Rights if they had known about it. To many, it even seems like the First Amendment, which guarantees the right to free speech, should require it.
The term “net neutrality” originated with Columbia University media law professor Tim Wu in 2003 as an extension of the long-standing concept of a common carrier used to describe the role of telephone systems.
Large telecoms don’t like net neutrality because they aren’t sufficiently cashing in on the Internet with it. They have to allow the use of their infrastructure without making money from the content. They see companies like Apple, Google, Amazon, Facebook, eBay, Netflix and others making billions while it is their equipment, installed at great expense, that makes it all possible.
The vision that large telecoms have for the Internet is one where they control the content and charge for access to that content (kind of like cable TV) but where content providers also pay instead of being paid. The oligarchy doesn’t like net neutrality because it can expose their crimes and make it easier for people to organize and oppose them; yet they like using the Internet for social engineering and surveillance. They want to keep the Internet but control it for their own purposes.
The oligarchy is already working with Google to reduce access to websites that expose the oligarchy by merely keeping them out of search results. Traffic to some independent news sites has already plummeted due to Google enforced lower rankings in search results. In addition to suppressing progressive and independent websites, Google also seems to be promoting an increasingly right-wing agenda by ranking data that align with the right-wing agenda higher.
Of course, the vast majority of Americans want to keep the Internet neutral, readily accessible and free from excessive constraints and controls.
Unfortunately, Trump’s chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), Ajit Pai, will likely go ahead with a major rollback on net neutrality in the near future, despite massive public opposition.
In 2014, Americans had their first taste of what might happen in a nation without net neutrality. Comcast and Verizon, two of the biggest ISPs in the United States, slowed Netflix’s streaming rates via their services by about 30% on average. The three services eventually settled, when Netflix paid off what amounted to an extortion of sorts to both services, a fee at that time called “paid prioritization.” The aspect of getting rid of net neutrality raised its head for the first time in a big way in 2016. AT&T, who had purchased the DirectTV service, gave technical and speed advantages to that service, compared to others. This amounts to the same thing as in the previous case: The ISPs will favor what serves them best, regardless of what might be something their direct customers want.
Under the Obama administration, the FCC blocked both of those practices and required that the ISPs operate as if net neutrality were the law of the land. The argument for net neutrality is that if big business could charge differently depending on the services being streamed, the start-ups, innovators and other “little guys” on the Internet would just have to live with whatever the ISPs and those big services they negotiate to pay for bandwidth rights agree on. It just did not “seem fair.” The public supported what the Obama-era FCC had agreed upon. A Consumer Reports survey reported that 57% of Americans “support the current net neutrality regulations that ban ISPs from blocking or discriminating against lawful content on the Internet.” A further conclusion was that an even larger percentage – 67%, or two-thirds – of Americans said, “ISPs shouldn’t be allowed to choose the apps or streaming services their customers can access.”
On September 27, there were massive rallies in Washington to keep the FCC from changing the current rules.
All over the United States, people were lining up to demand that the FCC keep the old rules. Many hit the streets in Washington, scheduled formal rallies and met with members of Congress to ask for their help. Still more, including an estimated 125,000 websites, organizations and individuals, stood up elsewhere to make their feelings against any attempted repeal of net neutrality known. There have been a record 22 million comments posted on the FCC website, the clear majority of which are saying the same thing – that net neutrality must be treated as sacred and not touched.
Mary Alice Crim, field director of the Free Press Action Fund, described the uprising vividly. “Wherever you go, you can feel the energy and enthusiasm for net neutrality,” she said in a statement. “Students, doctors, software engineers, lawyers and more are volunteering their time because they want a free and open Internet.”
That may be. Yet for all this protest and noise, it is important to remember something. The other side of that Consumer Reports survey, which reported that about 57% of the nation supports the current net neutrality regulations, also means that over 40% of the nation either feels it is a good idea to get rid of net neutrality or possibly just does not care. That 40% is a more-than-big-enough number to turn the tide against net neutrality – and likely forever.
Part of the reason for this is that within that 40% are those who would benefit the most by getting rid of net neutrality. These include people behind companies like AT&T, Comcast and Verizon, who collectively have spent $11 million lobbying for their cause in Congress just in the first quarter of 2017 alone. There are many others like them out there who will continue the fight for what they see as their “rights” in this situation.
A surprisingly large number of Americans are frightened by the rapid pace of social and technological change and want authority figures to tell them what to think and how to feel. Others feel that the Internet is primarily a sewer that pipes vile things into their home to corrupt their children.
The arguments the ISPs offer up as to why net neutrality does not make sense are similar to those used by other industries to justify fees.
The first thing the ISPs say is that they are the ones spending the money on the infrastructure that allows services like Netflix to exist in the first place. Not charging Netflix for its access rights, they say, is unfair to them since Netflix is – according to them, at least – taking a free ride by making all that money through the ISPs. Under net neutrality, Netflix doesn’t have to pay anything for it.
The second thing the ISPs say is that unless they can charge someone like Netflix, they cannot afford the investments to support all the new demands for bandwidth. That is what they say in their public protestations against net neutrality, anyway. When they address their stockholders, however, the strange thing is that, most of the time, they say they can fully support the investments they need to make to expand their offerings, regardless of whether net neutrality is rolled back.
The first defense – that Netflix and others are just taking advantage of the poor people running AT&T, Comcast and Verizon – is as silly as it sounds after one thinks about it for a while. On the one hand, those ISPs act in many regions of the country as a virtual monopoly, with at most one other competitor available for consumers to choose from. They can raise their rates to the home consumer if they really need the extra money, and they can get away with it. On the other side of this, all three have their own homegrown media content that they can slam through at higher bandwidths and with other technology advantages anyway. Which means that even if they are denied the right to charge for different levels of bandwidth service, they can still give preferential treatment to their own content over others’ content with ease.
The second defense – that the ISPs cannot afford the investments needed to provide the best possible technology to the masses – is also nonsense. They have been navigating this business area for almost two decades and know exactly how to plan for the investments and pay for what they need. The real need for money for each of them is not about infrastructure, which they will gladly spend for because it is their way of keeping and growing their core customer count. It is instead far more about finding ways to buy other companies, become more vertically integrated and – if they are lucky – become the next decade’s Netflix but with control over the network infrastructures now in their pockets as well.
A second reason why that 40+% number who could support getting rid of net neutrality is more than enough is that, in the end, if people can get the services they want and they can afford them, they will “go with the flow.” No one should assume that the 57% who claim they must have net neutrality would really take it to the highest level of the courts to defend as long as they can still watch Game of Thrones or House of Cards whenever and wherever they want.
A final reason why having “only” 40% against net neutrality matters lies in how the United States decides these kinds of things. That process has perhaps its most glaring example in who FCC Chairman Ajit Pai is. Pai, who has been a fierce advocate of dumping net neutrality as we know it, comes with a good pedigree for running the FCC from many standpoints.
He is the son of Indian immigrants, so he comes to the table with a strong world view. He went to Harvard University, where he focused on social studies, and then eventually received a law degree from the University of Chicago.
Pai also happens to have worked two years as an associate general counsel at Verizon and may still have a strong interest in what benefits that ISP.
Pai arrived at the FCC as an appointee under the Obama administration. When Trump became President, Pai’s pro-big-business stance was precisely the kind of attitude Trump’s team was looking for. Pai’s background in a senior legal position at ISP giant Verizon was just the icing on that particular cake.
Pai – both in where he came from and in his current position of power – personifies what the true power of that 40+% who possibly stand against net neutrality means. It is a perfect example of what the modern joke about the 21st-century golden rule is in operation – that “he who has the gold makes the rules.”Get ready, America. Access to the Internet as we have known it so far is about to go through a seismic shift like no other to date. The changes will likely be small at first, and many people won’t notice. Americans are able to accept almost anything if it is introduced gradually.
One day we will wake up to a sanitized and officially approved Internet that costs vastly more while giving us access to vastly less. And only a few will wonder how this all came to pass.