We can’t let net neutrality die

July 19, 2018

James Zeigler explains the backdrop to last month’s FCC decision to lift crucial regulations on internet providers — and argues why activists need to keep up the fight.

THE OFFICIAL expiration date for “net neutrality” has come and gone. So what happens now?

On June 11, regulations passed by the Obama-era Federal Communications Commission (FCC) preventing Internet Service Providers (ISPs) from prioritizing certain websites — and slowing down others — came to an end.

Internet companies will now have the freedom to charge varying rates to access “premium” content, creating a two-tiered system for the internet, where only those who can pay can access information freely.

The net neutrality debate has understandably taken a back seat to the myriad of other crises hitting working people in the Trump era. But it’s an issue whose impact extends far beyond the tech industry and Silicon Valley.

Changing our access to web content is an attack on the right of ordinary people to access the Internet as a basic public utility. As socialists, we should stand firmly against new legislation undermining net neutrality, and we shouldn’t allow the June 11 to be the end of the fight.

Defenders of net neutrality protest FCC Chair Ajit Pai and telecom lobbyists in Washington, D.C.
Defenders of net neutrality protest FCC Chair Ajit Pai and telecom lobbyists in Washington, D.C. (Stephen Melkisethian | flickr)

THE STORY of net neutrality begins decades before anyone ever heard of the internet.

In 1934, Congress passed the Communications Act, which created the FCC as THE central commission to ensure that all wired and radio communications were regulated as interstate commerce.

Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal administration aimed to make sure that telephone and radio providers wouldn’t give special treatment to certain signals, whether phone calls or broadcasts, over others, based on whether their senders paid more.

Eighty-one years later, FCC chair Tom Wheeler decided in 2015 that internet and broadband internet should be regulated in the same way — over the objections of Republican FCC member Ajit Pai, who is now the agency’s chair.

Industry trade associations like the National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA), along with their political supporters like Ajit Pai, would have us believe that this deregulation has “liberated” the internet from silly and costly government intrusions into the “free” market that have only hurt consumers.

According to this logic, it’s government regulations that have prevented broadband corporations like Comcast — which reported $80 billion in revenue for 2016 — from expanding access and reliability, as opposed to coldhearted capitalist reluctance to expand access into what are seen less profitable or more “difficult to service” areas.

Comcast’s earnings report exceeded expectations from investors concerned about the growing number of users who are “cutting the cord” on traditional cable and satellite TV in favor a-la-carte services like Netflix, HBO and Hulu.

Variety reported last year that “22 million will have canceled cable, satellite TV by the end of 2017,” — and that number is expected to grow, both from more people ditching traditional TV and from increasing numbers of young people who never knew that model to begin with.

As “cord-cutting” has grown, advertising revenue has dropped accordingly, presenting some of today’s telecom behemoths with a massive problem on the horizon.

It isn’t difficult to draw a connection between the revenue losses to cable and satellite TV created by cord-cutting, and the push to end FCC regulation of the Internet as a basic utility. It’s also not difficult to see the contradiction in deregulating the broadband market, and the increase in mergers and acquisitions in the Internet and broadcast companies.

In most parts of the country, people’s cable and satellite TV provider is the same as their ISP, and many locations in the U.S. have fewer than two ISP options. In fact, Americans have on average one and a half providers to choose from. So even as millions are jumping ship from cable to internet, they still find themselves beholden to the same handful of monopolies.

The FCC and NCTA would like us to believe this is the result of irresponsible government regulations that prevent companies from providing a wide array of options for consumers at a competitive price.

In reality, it’s our extremely unregulated economy that has given license to a handful of corporate behemoths to engage for the last 30 years in a veritable “arms” race to gain the largest market share, either by mergers and acquisitions or by cartel-like non-competition agreements with one another.

If the desire of super-sized communication conglomerates to dictate the terms of the market is one important factor driving the FCC’s decision to end the net neutrality regulations, another is the desire of economic and political elites to shape and control our media.

The political danger of telecom monopolization was made apparent when the right wing Sinclair Broadcast Group was exposed for airing a propaganda script — ironically about the dangers of “fake news” — across their dozens of television and radio stations. The Orwellian fiasco showed how concentrated media monopolies can create and distribute completely false information because they have total control over the content being produced.

Control of the media plays a crucial role in what Noam Chomsky and others have dubbed “manufacturing consent” for ruling-class policies that lead to wars, poverty, mass incarceration and the continued deterioration of conditions for the working class.

By contrast, the internet has provided the working class — so far — a potential platform to inject our ideas and interests into public discussion.

Social media campaigns like #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo have played a critical role in enabling grassroots activists and everyday people to build awareness and solidarity against oppression. Nor should we forget the role social media played in the Arab Spring. The FCC’s June 11 decision will compromise access to what has become a vital tool for social change.

In the last decade, members of Congress, both Democrats and Republicans, have tried to pass three bills — the Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act (COICA), PROTECT IP Act (PIPA) and the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) — that would have enabled the Justice Department to censor and shut down websites containing “confidential or copyrighted material.”

The loose definitions in these bills about what constitutes confidential or protected material created widespread fears of corporate abuse, and ultimately all three failed to gain passage, due in large part to pressure from activists around the U.S.

The FCC’s decision potentially puts this power of censorship fully in the control of corporate ISPs, and provides ordinary people with few avenues to challenge their decisions to block access or throttle bandwidth to any chosen site for any reason.

Deregulating net neutrality could give Comcast the ability to censor YouTube videos of Black men being shot by police on the basis that the videos constitute “inflammatory content” or are “not in alignment with our corporate culture.” Or an ISP could decide to only stream the video if either YouTube or the consumer (or both) pays a premium fee.

Some large media corporations like Facebook and Amazon have come out in support of net neutrality. Of course, their interest is less about consumer choice or political freedom than about keeping their costs down, as they make obscene amounts of money through their own monopolistic practices, as well as by collecting and selling our data to the highest bidder.

WHILE THE FCC has made its decision, but the fight for net neutrality isn’t over.

Even if these telcom monopolies start imposing a fee-based structure for various packages, users will inevitably find ways around it — like using paid or free virtual private network (VPN) services that appear to access the internet outside of the U.S., thereby circumventing restrictions.

If states such as California follow through on their pledges to become “net neutral states,” this in turn could give rise to VPN services that appear to access the internet from California, effectively “opening the gates” on internet content.

The internet is a battleground that we need to win. It was designed as a communication and information system. We’ve seen its benefits to education, medicine, organization, and social change. On the other hand, if it passes wholly over into the unregulated hands of capitalists, it can become a tool of social control and mega-profits to a far greater extent than it already is.

While we stand in solidarity with #BLM, #MeToo, #FreePalestine, #BDS, we need to also make sure we protect a media platform that belongs to us and that has been so vital in all of these movements.

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