On December 14, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted to roll back the rules that uphold net neutrality — the principle that internet service providers (ISPs) must allow equal access to web content, regardless of the source.
While some on the FCC argue that the decision will boost economic growth, the only thing we know for certain is that eliminating net neutrality will make internet service look a lot more like cable TV. That’s good for a handful of corporations, but bad for just about everyone else.
There’s a reason why most Americans despise the cable company. In recent years, Comcast, Dish Network and other consumer telecom giants have ranked near dead last in the Harris Reputation Quotient poll, the gold-standard favorability ratings for the nation’s most visible companies.
The problem isn’t just the unauthorized account charges or repair technicians showing up outside the 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. service window. The problem is the underlying structure of the business model. Cable providers exert too much power over consumers by deciding what content they can and can’t access according to inscrutable and unpredictable pricing schemes.
While these corporations are supposed to serve the function of a public utility, they clearly exist to serve the interests of their elite shareholders and executives — pursuing lax regulations and maximum profit rather than transparency or consumer choice.
So why is the FCC trying to export the flawed and unpopular cable TV business architecture to the realm of internet service? The short answer is that corporate interests are using their extensive influence to promote an “internet for the elites.”
For all the legal debates about net neutrality, the issue is actually simple. Rather than accessing internet content as you see fit, you might have to purchase bundles of services and sites set by the opaque decisions of unaccountable for-profit firms.
Imagine, for example, that you’re surfing online, and someone sends you a link to a hilarious cat video. When you click on it, you get a message from your internet provider: “We’re sorry, but you don’t have access to Web Video Service. Would you like to add it to your plan for $9.99 a month?”
In Portugal, where there are currently no net neutrality rules enforced, this kind of data privileging is already the norm. ISPs there sell plans to access select bundles of websites; others can be accessed only at slow speeds or for additional money.
Slower or selective internet access might sound like a “first world problem” — a mere inconvenience in the scheme of what the country is facing today. But there’s more than convenience at stake. The net neutrality question has important implications for the structure of our economy and society.
Today’s telecoms are engaging in a high-tech version of the “vertical monopolies” — or fully consolidated supply chains — that Teddy Roosevelt and other trustbusters fought more than a century ago. Increasingly, the owners of internet infrastructure are buying up internet content too — think Comcast acquiring NBC and BuzzFeed, or Verizon buying Huffington Post and Yahoo.
In the post-neutrality Wild West, there’s little keeping these companies from acting to privilege content from their own subsidiaries or even deny access to competitors’ services. This isn’t a paranoid pipe dream; consider Verizon’s attempts to block Google Wallet.
Similarly, in a post-neutrality era, ISPs could become gatekeepers for online content and services, requiring companies to fork over cash to ensure their sites are accessible at prime speeds. This would create huge new advantages for the biggest entrenched companies relative to the scrappy young start-ups fueling innovation.
Or consider an overtly political scenario. In a rural area with little or no competition among providers, it’s conceivable that a politically-motivated billionaire — on the left or the right — could buy up the ISP and limit access to information sources that don’t align with his or her point of view. The FCC’s proposal, which goes to extreme lengths in handicapping regulators, could make this possible.
I’ve devoted my career to internet technology, including co-founding the open source software community Mozilla, because I believe in the promise of a web that is open, equitable and accessible to all. The internet is supposed to be an effective counterpoint to concentrated elite power.
Even as our society has grown more partisan in recent decades, this vision of the internet has, refreshingly, transcended party and ideology. That’s why it’s not only progressive groups fighting to save net neutrality but also social conservatives, libertarians and business groups.
In a major poll during the last round of FCC deliberations, 83% of self-described “very conservative” voters were concerned about the specter of ISPs gaining power to “influence content” online. Similarly, large majorities of conservatives believed Congress should make sure that cable companies don’t “monopolize the internet” or “reduce the inherent equality of the internet” through differential pricing.
FCC Chair Ajit Pai is trying to make the end of net neutrality look like a fait accompli. He believes he cannot only undermine sensible federal rules but also pre-empt states from taking prudent action to protect residents and even restrict cities from creating their own municipal access services.
But he’s mistaken. There will be judicial pressure to overturn the FCC ruling. And by calling our members of Congress and making net neutrality a headline issue in the coming elections, we can also defend a fair and open internet through the legislative process.
If there was one big lesson of the 2016 election — from Bernie’s insurgency to Trump’s election — it’s that both left and right are wary of concentrated elite power. Turning internet service over to unaccountable cable TV-style corporate control is one of the surest ways to strengthen elite power relative to everyone else.