Today, as expected, the Federal Communications Commission has voted to repeal its own net neutrality rules along partisan lines, by a vote of 3-2. And that wasn’t even the biggest news story in US media industries. Earlier today, Disney agreed to buy the movie and television assets of 21st Century Fox for over $66 billion in cash and stock. This deal has now pared down Rupert Murdoch’s one labyrinthine News Corp. media empire to a bunch of broadcast TV stations, the broadcast television network, and several cable TV networks. These moves have emerged in a climate of technological change but also of deregulatory moves ushered by Donald Trump’s FCC Chairman Ajit Pai.
Net Neutrality Rules Repealed
As I’ve mentioned before in a series of posts on this site, this is one of several deregulatory measures that this FCC, led by Chairman Pai, to give broadcasters and Internet service providers more power at the expense of consumer protections and the interest of the public.
Repealing the FCC’s net neutrality rules will make it possible for Internet service providers—your “beloved” cable and telephone company—to turn the Internet to something that could look like what we had with AOL in the 1990s: a closed network with curated content with limited access to the open Internet. The latter is what doomed AOL and its 2000 merger with Time Warner.
If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll know that AT&T is attempting to acquire Time Warner and its vast library of media properties and content. With net neutrality rules out of the way, a provider like AT&T can realize its vision to dominate the Internet. Tim Wu, who coined the term “net neutrality” predicted as much in his 2010 book The Master Switch. Wu writes:
it doesn’t take a genius to realize that if AT&T and the cable companies exercised broad discretion to speed up the business of some firms and slow down that of others, they would gain the power of life and death over the Internet.
The telecommunications companies can do this because repealing net neutrality rules reclassifies broadband Internet service providers from common carriers to information services. The days of Internet-as-we-know-it might be numbered. At worst, it will be something like AOL in the 1990s. Or it will be something like cable TV and its curated 500-channel universe. Both were information services.
Centralize All Broadcast Activities
But it’s not just the Internet that Chairman Pai’s FCC has given over to the major corporate interests; he’s also cleared the way for broadcast station owners to expand their reach through out the United States.
Back in April, Chairman Pai led the FCC to restore the UHF discount rule, allowing owners of all-UHF stations to reach as much as 78% of all US households. As I wrote earlier, the UHF discount rule was developed in an era when US TV households mostly watched VHF channels 2-13 over UHF channels 14-69. The Obama-era FCC eliminated that discount on the grounds that the rule was deprecated. There is no difference in terms of VHF and UHF stations in today’s multichannel TV environment.
Also today, at the same Commissioners meeting to vote down the net neutrality rules, the FCC voted to review eliminating the 39% TV station ownership cap rule. This rule, designed to keep one station owner from reaching too many people through broadcasting, was already a relaxed version of the FCC’s original seven-station rule. But Chairman Pai apparently wants to allow broadcast station owners to reach even more American households and further reduce the diversity of voices using the public airwaves.
Both the UHF discount and the give Sinclair Broadcasting and the “New Fox” the opportunity to grow the number of broadcast TV stations they can own and expand their reach to US households. Not only could this have some competitive implications, it also forebodes some chilling ideological consequences. It’s not unlike what the Nazi’s chief propagandist Joseph Goebbels wrote in 1933:
Above all, it is necessary to centralize all radio activities to place spiritual tasks ahead of technical ones, to introduce the leadership principle, to provide a clear worldview, and to present this worldview in flexible ways.
Both Sinclair’s and Fox’s owners are both staunch conservatives and supporters of Chairman Pat’s boss Donald Trump and their news coverage has consistently supported Trump’s policies.
Take Action on Net Neutrality
Although I realize that the tone of this post is downright dreary, we the public can still take action to restore net neutrality rules. Basically, it comes down to fighting Chairman Pai on two fronts:
- We can lobby Congress to pass “net neutrality” legislation. Any action the FCC takes on classifying Internet service providers—as common carriers or information services—can be rendered moot through legislation. It might take until after the 2018 midterm elections to get this done, but legislation is the only way to guarantee an open Internet for the long term.
- Take the FCC to court. This is less than ideal because it must protect net neutrality rules within the current legal framework, which is not very specific about net neutrality. Nonetheless, Free Press plans to file a lawsuit against the FCC. I don’t know their legal strategy, but it might be on the grounds that the FCC has unlawfully abdicated its authority over the Internet. A lawsuit would likely lead to an injunction to keep the current net-neutrality rules in place. After that, prevailing in court could keep the Internet open, but as I wrote above, legislation is the best way to do it.