Taking a toll on the information superhighway

December 6, 2017

Ryan de Laureal explains the planned changes to "net neutrality" regulations expected to come this month--and why it matters to you.

ON NOVEMBER 21, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), under the leadership of its Trump-appointed Chairman Ajit Pai, announced a plan to roll back Obama-era regulations that impose "network neutrality" requirements on internet service providers (ISPs), despite receiving over 20 million comments from the public, mostly in support of net neutrality.

The first net neutrality regulations were adopted by the FCC in 2015 in a victory for internet users.

The Open Internet Order declared the internet to be a public utility and mandated that ISPs treat all internet traffic equally. This prevented businesses from censoring web sites and content; creating tiered service where users must pay more for internet "fast lanes"; slowing down (or "throttling") content from competitors; or charging customers extra fees for streaming, downloading or other online activities.

Thus, net neutrality means that internet content shouldn't be at the mercy of profit-comes-first business practices. Amazon can't pay an ISP to stream its video at a faster rate in order to squeeze out Netflix, for example.

Federal Communications Commission Chair Ajit Pai
Federal Communications Commission Chair Ajit Pai (Lance Cheung | flickr)

Under the Open Internet Order, broadband internet service was reclassified under Title II of the Communications Act as "common carriers." This subjected ISPs to some of the same kinds of FCC regulations as landlines and electricity--and gave the FCC the legal authority to enforce rules against restricted practices like paid prioritization.

Under the new rules, the power of large ISPs will be further consolidated, letting a handful of corporations control how millions of people use the internet. It is a serious threat to the ability of ordinary people to use the internet as a platform for free speech.

THE FCC will vote on the misnamed "Restoring Internet Freedom Order" on December 14, and it is likely that it will pass, since Republicans are three of the five current FCC commissioners.

Net neutrality is universally opposed by ISPs, despite being broadly popular among a majority of the population. Large sectors of tech capital, primarily internet-based companies like Facebook, Google and Netflix, also support it, since their businesses benefit from unfettered customer access to their platforms and data.

Ajit Pai, a former Verizon lawyer, was first nominated to the FCC by Obama in 2012 and confirmed unanimously by the then-Democratic-controlled Senate.

In a recent statement, Pai cloaked the move against net neutrality in typical right-wing talking points about "heavy-handed" government regulation that "depressed investment in building and expanding broadband networks and deterred innovation."

Pai claims that after repealing the rules, the government will simply require ISPs to be "transparent about their practices so that consumers can buy the service plan that's best for them."

But Pai has a long track record of protecting corporate interests at the expense of consumers. In his time at the FCC, he explicitly opposed "building and expanding broadband networks" when they were publicly owned, and had no problem backing government regulations on public ownership.

During Obama's tenure, Pai opposed rules passed under then-FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler to protect the expansion of municipally owned broadband internet service, thereby siding with Republican states that had passed laws--at the behest of ISPs--declaring such expansions illegal. These protections were later struck down in court, in a major victory for ISPs.

In short, the new order that will be voted on would essentially allow the FCC to dump its own authority to regulate an industry.

ISPs LIKE Comcast, Verizon and AT&T are some of the most profitable and most widely despised corporations in the country.

It isn't hard to see why. Since they operate as monopolies in many areas, most people are at the complete mercy of their local ISP when it comes to the quality and price of internet access.

ISPs have been sued by multiple states for misleading and defrauding their customers--and many rural and small town residents have little to no internet access at all, since these corporations often don't find it profitable enough to invest in the infrastructure that could bring high-speed internet to remote communities.

Public broadband was first implemented by some municipalities as a solution to this problem. This came under vicious attack from an industry that used every means at its disposal to prevent the spread of public high-speed internet. But compared with corporate internet service, municipal broadband has proven to be cheaper, faster and better in most instances.

A 2014 Guardian report described a successful municipal internet project in Tennessee--and a state level ban, backed by ISPs, that later prevented the project's expansion into neighboring towns:

Chattanooga has the largest high-speed internet service in the U.S., offering customers access to speeds of 1 gigabit per second--about 50 times faster than the U.S. average. The service, provided by municipally owned EPB, has sparked a tech boom in the city and attracted international attention. EPB is now petitioning the FCC to expand its territory. Comcast and other companies have previously sued unsuccessfully to stop EPB's fiber optic roll out.

Given the monopolization of the industry and the total lack of a reliable internet connection in some areas, Pai's statement about ensuring consumer choice is a particularly laughable lie. Most consumers have little to no choice about who their internet provider is--if they have access to the internet at all--and these trends will likely worsen if ISPs get their way.

DESPITE THE lack of competition that already exists in the industry, there have been a number of recently successful or attempted large corporate mergers that help to illustrate the future direction of the internet without net neutrality.

Companies like Comcast, AT&T and Charter Communications have increasingly sought to diversify themselves through "vertical integration," acquiring stakes in both content, like movies and TV shows, as well as the infrastructure of broadband internet and TV, which delivers this content to customers.

In 2011, the Obama administration approved a merger between Comcast, the country's largest cable and broadband provider, with NBC Universal, one of the country's largest media companies.

In 2015, Charter Communications struck a deal to acquire Time Warner Cable for $67.1 billion, and AT&T announced its acquisition of DirecTV.

This year, AT&T is making a bid for Time Warner, which controls a number of film studios and TV channels. (The Trump administration is attempting to block the deal).

Without net neutrality, the ISP and media industries will be further incentivized to continue this trend toward mergers and monopolization, as each company's control of the infrastructure will drive them to prioritize delivering their own content, while potentially blocking that of competitors, or of sites that criticize or threaten their business. The lack of competition means that internet users will have few ways to bypass this. As tech website Gizmodo noted:

While several major ISPs have essentially promised never to do any these terrible, no good, very bad things, they've steadily opposed any law that would actually stop them. (Comcast actually deleted its promise after Pai announced the vote, Ars Technica reported Wednesday.)

The horrible track records of ISPs extend beyond customer service to their workers. When Charter took over Time Warner Cable, it immediately launched a union-busting campaign against International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 3 members in New York City, forcing 1,800 members of the union, who had been working without a contract since 2013, to go on strike in March.

And last year, nearly 40,000 Verizon workers successfully struck for six weeks after refusing a company push to cut pensions and outsource jobs.

THE TRUMP administration's move against net neutrality represents a dangerous power grab by ISPs at a time when free expression and the flow of information online are already under threat.

With Google, Facebook and Twitter vowing to crack down on "fake news," critical sources of information--often left-wing sites--are already being censored as corporate news is prioritized over independent sources by search engines and social media sites.

The battle for net neutrality is important in the broader fight to keep the internet an open source of information and communication, but the fight can't stop there. It is essential that internet access be expanded to all who need it and that efforts by ISPs to block public broadband be resisted.

Standing in solidarity with telecommunications workers who are fighting corporate abuse on the front lines is also an important part of the picture. So is the fight to recognize the internet as a public utility.

Winning a free internet ultimately also means fighting the monopolization of media and culture and the ownership of the means of communication by a handful of powerful corporations.

A noble end goal would be the complete elimination of ISPs from public life altogether--and a transformation of the internet from a capitalist industry that enriches the few into a tool of mass democracy and a source of information and communication organized for the benefit of all.

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