It's time to take the in­ter­net off the free mar­ket – and make it a ba­sic right

The Guardian Australia - - Technology/Sport - Ben Tarnoff

Say good­bye to net neu­tral­ity. Last week, the Fed­eral Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Com­mis­sion (FCC) chair­man, Ajit Pai, re­leased a plan to re­peal the land­mark pro­tec­tions en­acted by the agency in 2015. This has long been a top pri­or­ity for Pai and his fel­low Repub­li­cans, who now en­joy a ma­jor­ity of com­mis­sion­ers thanks to Trump. The vote is sched­uled for 14 De­cem­ber, and is widely ex­pected to pass along party lines.

What does this mean in prac­tice? In a sen­tence: slower and more ex­pen­sive in­ter­net ser­vice. Net neu­tral­ity is the prin­ci­ple that in­ter­net ser­vice providers (ISPs) like Com­cast should treat all kinds of data the same way. Its re­peal means that in the fu­ture, your ISP will be able to fleece you in all sorts of new ways.

When you think of the in­ter­net with­out net neu­tral­ity, you should think of the plea­sures of mod­ern air travel. You pay for a checked bag, you pay for a mod­icum of legroom, you pay for a lousy sand­wich. The in­ter­net with­out net neu­tral­ity will likely look sim­i­lar: the ba­sics are barely tol­er­a­ble, and every­thing else costs ex­tra.

This dystopian sce­nario is why it’s so im­por­tant to fight the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s agenda. But that fight can’t be lim­ited to sav­ing net neu­tral­ity.

To de­moc­ra­tize the in­ter­net, we need to do more than force pri­vate ISPs to abide by cer­tain rules. We need to turn those ISPs into pub­licly owned util­i­ties. We need to take in­ter­net ser­vice off the mar­ket, and trans­form it from a con­sumer good into a so­cial right.

Ac­cess to the in­ter­net is a ne­ces­sity. It is a ba­sic pre­con­di­tion for full par­tic­i­pa­tion in our so­cial, political, and eco­nomic life. But so long as the in­ter­net’s in­fra­struc­ture re­mains pri­vate, the cor­po­ra­tions that con­trol it will al­ways pri­or­i­tize pil­ing up prof­its for in­vestors over serv­ing our needs as users and cit­i­zens. Net neu­tral­ity ad­dresses one neg­a­tive con­se­quence of pri­vate own­er­ship, but there are many oth­ers. Charg­ing dis­crim­i­na­tory rates for data is a symp­tom – the root cause is the an­tidemo­cratic na­ture of a sys­tem run ex­clu­sively for profit. The so­lu­tion is to make that sys­tem pub­lic, and put it un­der demo­cratic con­trol.

The idea of a pub­lic in­ter­net might seem utopian, but it’s how the net­work be­gan. Our money cre­ated the in­ter­net, be­fore it was rad­i­cally pri­va­tized in the 1990s. Big com­pa­nies seized a sys­tem built at enor­mous pub­lic ex­pense in or­der to sell us ac­cess to it – the equiv­a­lent of some­one steal­ing your house to charge you rent.

The pro­po­nents of pri­va­ti­za­tion ar­gued that the pri­vate sec­tor would pro­vide bet­ter ser­vice. But let­ting the profit mo­tive rule our in­ter­net in­fra­struc­ture has been a disas­ter. ISPs reg­u­larly rank at the bot­tom of the an­nual Amer­i­can Cus­tomer Sat­is­fac­tion In­dex, even lower than air­lines and health in­sur­ers. Most hated of all is Com­cast, Amer­ica’s largest ISP.

It’s not hard to un­der­stand why. Amer­i­can ISPs charge some of the high­est prices in the world in ex­change for aw­ful ser­vice. Your money isn’t be­ing used to build bet­ter in­fra­struc­ture, but to make the rich even richer: Com­cast’s CEO earned $33m last year. In­ter­na­tion­ally, we’re an em­bar­rass­ment: the coun­try that in­vented the in­ter­net ranks tenth in av­er­age con­nec­tion speeds, far below South Korea and Nor­way. And that num­ber doesn’t cap­ture the sig­nif­i­cant dis­par­i­ties in ser­vice that dis­pro­por­tion­ately af­fect poor and ru­ral com­mu­ni­ties.

A stag­ger­ing 39% of ru­ral Amer­i­cans lack ac­cess to in­ter­net ser­vice that meets the def­i­ni­tion of broad­band. Nearly half of Amer­i­cans with house­hold in­comes below $30,000 a year have no home broad­band at all – es­pe­cially black and His­panic house­holds. And even those res­i­dents of low-in­come ar­eas who can af­ford home in­ter­net of­ten en­dure very slow speeds.

ISPs ig­nore th­ese com­mu­ni­ties be­cause they can make more money else­where. The hu­man costs are im­mense: by deny­ing a large swath of the coun­try de­cent in­ter­net ser­vice, ISPs ef­fec­tively cut them off from mod­ern so­ci­ety. And while poor and ru­ral Amer­i­cans suf­fer the most, they’re not the only ca­su­al­ties. Ev­ery­one hates Com­cast: by re­fus­ing to in­vest in in­fra­struc­ture while charg­ing ex­or­bi­tant rates, ISPs make ur­ban, mid­dle-class Amer­i­cans mis­er­able too.

For­tu­nately, there’s an al­ter­na­tive: mu­nic­i­pal broad­band. If the most hated ISP in the coun­try is Com­cast, the most pop­u­lar is EPB, a pub­lic util­ity owned by the city of Chat­tanooga, Ten­nessee. Con­sumer Re­ports ranks EPB the best Amer­i­can ISP, and the rea­son is ob­vi­ous: it charges rea­son­able rates for some of the fastest res­i­den­tial speeds in the world. Also, it doesn’t pun­ish poor peo­ple: Chat­tanoogans who can’t af­ford those rates are el­i­gi­ble for sub­si­dized high-speed plans.

Pub­licly owned ISPs can give peo­ple things that pri­vate ISPs can’t. They can sup­ply bet­ter ser­vice at lower cost be­cause they don’t have to line the pock­ets of ex­ec­u­tives and in­vestors. They can also em­power com­mu­ni­ties to de­cide how the in­fra­struc­ture is run, whether through mu­nic­i­pally ap­pointed boards, demo­crat­i­cally elected rep­re­sen­ta­tives, or more direct modes of pop­u­lar con­trol.

While Chat­tanooga is the best known ex­am­ple, many com­mu­ni­ties across the coun­try have built pub­lic net­works. We should de­fend th­ese initiatives, and join the move­ments for mu­nic­i­pal broad­band in San Francisco, Seat­tle and else­where.

But the political strug­gle for pub­licly owned in­ter­net in­fra­struc­ture can’t be won at the mu­nic­i­pal level. Chat­tanooga’s suc­cess ter­ri­fies the telecom in­dus­try, which has lob­bied states across the coun­try to ban or limit sim­i­lar ex­per­i­ments.

An­other rea­son that the cam­paign for a pub­lic in­ter­net can’t re­main lo­cal is that the in­ter­net it­self isn’t lo­cal. Broad­band providers are only one link in the chain: mov­ing your data across the in­ter­net re­quires a maze of deeper pipes, the largest of which are known as the “back­bone”. Lo­cal own­er­ship may be the best model for broad­band, but na­tional own­er­ship will be nec­es­sary for the in­ter­net’s big­ger net­works – per­haps along the lines of the Ten­nessee Val­ley Au­thor­ity, a fed­eral util­ity cre­ated dur­ing the New Deal that brought cheap elec­tric­ity to thousands of Amer­i­cans for the first time.

Net neu­tral­ity is worth de­fend­ing, but we can’t only play de­fense. Just as we should pro­tect Oba­macare while push­ing for Medi­care for All, we should pro­tect the net neu­tral­ity rules while push­ing for a pub­lic in­ter­net. The case couldn’t be more con­crete: a pub­lic in­ter­net prom­ises lower costs, faster speeds, and pop­u­lar sovereignty over one of so­ci­ety’s most im­por­tant in­fra­struc­tures. Above all, it prom­ises to make in­ter­net ac­cess a right.

Bernie San­ders has be­come the most pop­u­lar politi­cian in the coun­try by cham­pi­oning th­ese ideas in other are­nas. He wants to de­moc­ra­tize the pro­vi­sion of health­care and higher ed­u­ca­tion by treat­ing them not as com­modi­ties but as so­cial goods, guar­an­teed to all as a right.

We should be mak­ing the same ar­gu­ment about the in­ter­net. We need a so­cial­ist agenda for the in­ter­net for the same rea­son that we need a so­cial­ist agenda for health­care and higher ed­u­ca­tion: be­cause it’s the best way to give peo­ple the re­sources they need to lead dig­ni­fied lives, and the power to par­tic­i­pate in the de­ci­sions that most af­fect them.

It’s time to take back the in­ter­net, and make the sys­tem we made in com­mon serve our com­mon ends.

The in­ter­net with­out net neu­tral­ity will look like air travel: ba­sics are barely tol­er­a­ble, every­thing else costs ex­tra

‘We need to take in­ter­net ser­vice off the mar­ket, and trans­form it from a con­sumer good into a so­cial right.’ Pho­to­graph: Man­ju­nath Ki­ran/AFP/Getty Images

‘We need a so­cial­ist agenda for the in­ter­net for the same rea­son that we need a so­cial­ist agenda for health­care.’ Pho­to­graph: Ta­sos Katopodis/Getty Images

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