The Lapdogs and the Carcass of Net Neutrality

The corporate lapdogs at the Federal Communications Commission are to announce this week—the week of the Thanksgiving holiday the United States—their scheduled vote on December 15 to eliminate the “net neutrality” rules that govern wired broadband Internet providers.

The timing of the announcement and of the scheduled vote is not accidental. The FCC is trying to sneak the announcement during a holiday week when the country is distracted and will take the vote on a Friday before the FCC commissioners presumably adjourn for 2017. As we know, because of Donald Trump, the FCC has three business-friendly Republican commissioners that will out vote the two Democratic commissioners. There’s every reason to expect the vote to be a mere formality.

Karl Bode posted a great essay on Techdirt about the vote predicting a strong public backlash against the FCC’s vote to kill net neutrality rules. I won’t reproduce his argument here, but I want to draw attention to the two reasons he foresees a revolt. First, the public overwhelming supports these rules because, as with the broadband consumer privacy protections the Senate killed earlier this year, this is not a partisan issue. Hardcore lefties and righties want these protective rules. Second, these rules will largely benefit broadband Internet providers: i.e., the deep-pocketed cable and telephone companies that rank among the most hated companies in America. Much like the Republican tax plans currently debated in both chambers of Congress, the benefits will go to the wealthiest and most powerful segments in our country. The rest of us will get screwed.

However, unlike Bode, I am less optimistic about a coming public revolt against this FCC and the broadband companies they are supposed to protect the public against. A lot of people don’t understand what net neutrality even is, much less other related concepts such as common carriage that are arguably more meaningful and noticeable to people on a day-to-day basis. The most immediate effect of ending net neutrality will be preferential treatment of partner services. As we’ve already seen, Netflix is fine with partnering with ISPs to ensure a clear path for its streaming video service. As long as people can still stream video on Netflix and Amazon, no one will really notice that their Internet will no longer be an open-platform.

Of course, the long-term effect will be much greater, even if its harder to identify. That’s because the next generation of Internet companies will have a harder time emerging. Someone might develop something we can’t even imagine yet that could threaten Netflix and Amazon’s dominance the same way each company all but eliminated the Blockbuster Video stores that profited with usurious late fees and the major chain bookstores that forced many independents out of business decades. But we won’t probably will never see those competitors emerge and, even worse, we may never even know they existed in the first place.

The votes that Chairman Pai has brought to the FCC over his first year as the Commission’s chairman benefit incumbents over future innovative upstarts. While this may have a short-term benefit for the large companies that employ thousands of workers and trade on the Dow Jones stock exchange, as Verizon, Comcast, and AT&T do, these actions will cost us in the long-term in lost innovation. The Internet communications revolution in the United States didn’t come from incumbent telecommunications companies. It originated from military, government, and university researchers working together—often in their spare time. Had we left it up to AT&T or RCA, our Internet would basically be AOL and what Sprint called the “wireless web.” As someone who remembers both these versions of the “Internet,” I wish I had never known they existed in the first place.

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