Net Neu­tral­ity Is Go­ing to Dis­ap­pear No Mat­ter What the Ma­jor­ity Wants

Trillions - - In this Issue -

The In­ter­net has be­come an in­te­gral part of mod­ern hu­man so­ci­ety. We use it to com­mu­ni­cate with oth­ers, to buy and sell goods and to in­form and en­ter­tain our­selves. It has be­come an ex­ten­sion of our minds and makes great things pos­si­ble.

The In­ter­net in its cur­rent form is made pos­si­ble be­cause of the prin­ci­ple of net neu­tral­ity. This means that all data is treated the same and those who con­trol or reg­u­late the in­fra­struc­ture can­not dis­crim­i­nate or charge by user, con­tent, web­site, plat­form, ap­pli­ca­tion, type of at­tached equip­ment or method of com­mu­ni­ca­tion. Users merely pay for ac­cess and band­width, and what is trans­mit­ted and re­ceived is gen­er­ally un­re­stricted. Some ef­forts are made to sup­press il­le­gal con­tent, such as child pornog­ra­phy and hate speech. And some ef­forts are made to re­strict il­le­gal file shar­ing.

It sounds al­most like some­thing the found­ing fa­thers would have put into the Bill of Rights if they had known about it. To many, it even seems like the First Amend­ment, which guar­an­tees the right to free speech, should re­quire it.

The term “net neu­tral­ity” orig­i­nated with Columbia Univer­sity me­dia law pro­fes­sor Tim Wu in 2003 as an ex­ten­sion of the long-stand­ing con­cept of a com­mon car­rier used to de­scribe the role of tele­phone sys­tems. Large tele­coms don’t like net neu­tral­ity be­cause they aren’t suf­fi­ciently cash­ing in on the In­ter­net with it. They have to al­low the use of their in­fra­struc­ture with­out mak­ing money from the con­tent. They see com­pa­nies like Ap­ple, Google, Ama­zon, Face­book, ebay, Net­flix and oth­ers mak­ing bil­lions while it is their equip­ment, in­stalled at great ex­pense, that makes it all pos­si­ble.

The vi­sion that large tele­coms have for the In­ter­net is one where they con­trol the con­tent and charge for ac­cess to that con­tent (kind of like ca­ble TV) but where con­tent providers also pay in­stead of be­ing paid.

The oli­garchy doesn’t like net neu­tral­ity be­cause it can ex­pose their crimes and make it eas­ier for peo­ple to or­ga­nize and op­pose them; yet they like us­ing the In­ter­net for so­cial en­gi­neer­ing and sur­veil­lance. They want to keep the In­ter­net but con­trol it for their own pur­poses.

The oli­garchy is al­ready work­ing with Google to re­duce ac­cess to web­sites that ex­pose the oli­garchy by merely keep­ing them out of search re­sults. Traf­fic to some in­de­pen­dent news sites has al­ready plum­meted due to Google en­forced lower rank­ings in search re­sults. In ad­di­tion to sup­press­ing pro­gres­sive and in­de­pen­dent web­sites, Google also seems to be pro­mot­ing an in­creas­ingly right-wing agenda by rank­ing data that

align with the right-wing agenda higher.

Of course, the vast ma­jor­ity of Amer­i­cans want to keep the In­ter­net neu­tral, read­ily ac­ces­si­ble and free from ex­ces­sive con­straints and con­trols.

Un­for­tu­nately, Trump’s chair­man of the Fed­eral Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Com­mis­sion (FCC), Ajit Pai, will likely go ahead with a major roll­back on net neu­tral­ity in the near fu­ture, de­spite mas­sive pub­lic op­po­si­tion.

In 2014, Amer­i­cans had their first taste of what might hap­pen in a na­tion with­out net neu­tral­ity. Com­cast and Ver­i­zon, two of the big­gest ISPS in the United States, slowed Net­flix’s stream­ing rates via their ser­vices by about 30% on av­er­age. The three ser­vices even­tu­ally set­tled, when Net­flix paid off what amounted to an ex­tor­tion of sorts to both ser­vices, a fee at that time called “paid pri­or­i­ti­za­tion.” the aspect of get­ting rid of net neu­tral­ity raised its head for the first time in a big way in 2016. AT&T, who had pur­chased the Directtv ser­vice, gave tech­ni­cal and speed ad­van­tages to that ser­vice, com­pared to oth­ers. This amounts to the same thing as in the pre­vi­ous case: The ISPS will fa­vor what serves them best, re­gard­less of what might be some­thing their di­rect cus­tomers want.

Un­der the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion, the FCC blocked both of those prac­tices and re­quired that the ISPS op­er­ate as if net neu­tral­ity were the law of the land. The ar­gu­ment for net neu­tral­ity is that if big busi­ness could charge dif­fer­ently de­pend­ing on the ser­vices be­ing streamed, the start-ups, in­no­va­tors and other “lit­tle guys” on the In­ter­net would just have to live with what­ever the ISPS and those big ser­vices they ne­go­ti­ate to pay for band­width rights agree on. It just did not “seem fair.” The pub­lic sup­ported what the Obama-era FCC had agreed upon. A Con­sumer Reports sur­vey re­ported that 57% of Amer­i­cans “support the cur­rent net neu­tral­ity reg­u­la­tions that ban ISPS from block­ing or dis­crim­i­nat­ing against law­ful con­tent on the In­ter­net.” A fur­ther con­clu­sion was that an even larger per­cent­age – 67%, or two-thirds – of Amer­i­cans said, “ISPS shouldn’t be al­lowed to choose the apps or stream­ing ser­vices their cus­tomers can ac­cess.”

On Septem­ber 27, there were mas­sive ral­lies in Wash­ing­ton to keep the FCC from chang­ing the cur­rent rules.

All over the United States, peo­ple were lin­ing up to de­mand that the FCC keep the old rules. Many hit the streets in Wash­ing­ton, sched­uled for­mal ral­lies and met with mem­bers of Con­gress to ask for their help. Still more, in­clud­ing an es­ti­mated 125,000 web­sites, or­ga­ni­za­tions and in­di­vid­u­als, stood up else­where to make their feel­ings against any at­tempted re­peal of net neu­tral­ity known. There have been a record 22 mil­lion com­ments posted on the FCC web­site, the clear ma­jor­ity of which are say­ing the same thing – that net neu­tral­ity must be treated as sa­cred and not touched.

Mary Alice Crim, field di­rec­tor of the Free Press Ac­tion Fund, de­scribed the up­ris­ing vividly. “Wher­ever you go, you can feel the en­ergy and en­thu­si­asm for net neu­tral­ity,” she said in a state­ment. “Stu­dents, doc­tors, soft­ware engi­neers, lawyers and more are vol­un­teer­ing their time be­cause they want a free and open In­ter­net.”

That may be. Yet for all this protest and noise, it is im­por­tant to re­mem­ber some­thing. The other side of that Con­sumer Reports sur­vey, which re­ported that about 57% of the na­tion sup­ports the cur­rent net neu­tral­ity reg­u­la­tions, also means that over 40% of the na­tion ei­ther feels it is a good idea to get rid of net neu­tral­ity or pos­si­bly just does not care. That 40% is a more-than-big-enough num­ber to turn the tide against net neu­tral­ity – and likely for­ever.

Part of the rea­son for this is that within that 40% are those who would ben­e­fit the most by get­ting rid of net neu­tral­ity. Th­ese in­clude peo­ple be­hind com­pa­nies like AT&T, Com­cast and Ver­i­zon, who col­lec­tively have spent $11 mil­lion lob­by­ing for their cause in Con­gress just in the first quar­ter of 2017 alone. There are many oth­ers like them out there who will con­tinue the fight for what they see as their “rights” in this sit­u­a­tion.

A sur­pris­ingly large num­ber of Amer­i­cans are fright­ened by the rapid pace of so­cial and tech­no­log­i­cal change and want author­ity fig­ures to tell them what to think and how to feel. Oth­ers feel that the In­ter­net is pri­mar­ily a sewer that pipes vile things into their home to cor­rupt their chil­dren.

The ar­gu­ments the ISPS of­fer up as to why net neu­tral­ity does not make sense are sim­i­lar to those used by other in­dus­tries to jus­tify fees.

The first thing the ISPS say is that they are the ones spend­ing the money on the in­fra­struc­ture that al­lows ser­vices like Net­flix to ex­ist in the first place. Not charg­ing Net­flix for its ac­cess rights, they say, is un­fair to them since Net­flix is – ac­cord­ing to them, at least – tak­ing a free ride by mak­ing all that money through the ISPS. Un­der net neu­tral­ity, Net­flix doesn’t have to pay any­thing for it.

The sec­ond thing the ISPS say is that un­less they can charge some­one like Net­flix, they can­not af­ford the in­vest­ments to support all the new de­mands for band­width. That is what they say in their pub­lic

protes­ta­tions against net neu­tral­ity, any­way. When they ad­dress their stock­hold­ers, how­ever, the strange thing is that, most of the time, they say they can fully support the in­vest­ments they need to make to ex­pand their of­fer­ings, re­gard­less of whether net neu­tral­ity is rolled back.

The first de­fense – that Net­flix and oth­ers are just tak­ing ad­van­tage of the poor peo­ple run­ning AT&T, Com­cast and Ver­i­zon – is as silly as it sounds after one thinks about it for a while. On the one hand, those ISPS act in many re­gions of the coun­try as a vir­tual mo­nop­oly, with at most one other com­peti­tor avail­able for con­sumers to choose from. They can raise their rates to the home con­sumer if they re­ally need the ex­tra money, and they can get away with it. On the other side of this, all three have their own home­grown me­dia con­tent that they can slam through at higher band­widths and with other tech­nol­ogy ad­van­tages any­way. Which means that even if they are de­nied the right to charge for dif­fer­ent lev­els of band­width ser­vice, they can still give pref­er­en­tial treat­ment to their own con­tent over oth­ers’ con­tent with ease.

The sec­ond de­fense – that the ISPS can­not af­ford the in­vest­ments needed to pro­vide the best pos­si­ble tech­nol­ogy to the masses – is also non­sense. They have been nav­i­gat­ing this busi­ness area for al­most two decades and know ex­actly how to plan for the in­vest­ments and pay for what they need. The real need for money for each of them is not about in­fra­struc­ture, which they will gladly spend for be­cause it is their way of keep­ing and grow­ing their core cus­tomer count. It is in­stead far more about find­ing ways to buy other com­pa­nies, be­come more ver­ti­cally in­te­grated and – if they are lucky – be­come the next decade’s Net­flix but with con­trol over the net­work in­fra­struc­tures now in their pock­ets as well.

A sec­ond rea­son why that 40+% num­ber who could support get­ting rid of net neu­tral­ity is more than enough is that, in the end, if peo­ple can get the ser­vices they want and they can af­ford them, they will “go with the flow.” No one should as­sume that the 57% who claim they must have net neu­tral­ity would re­ally take it to the high­est level of the courts to de­fend as long as they can still watch Game of Thrones or House of Cards when­ever and wher­ever they want.

A fi­nal rea­son why hav­ing “only” 40% against net neu­tral­ity mat­ters lies in how the United States de­cides th­ese kinds of things. That process has per­haps its most glar­ing ex­am­ple in who FCC Chair­man Ajit Pai is. Pai, who has been a fierce ad­vo­cate of dump­ing net neu­tral­ity as we know it, comes with a good pedi­gree for run­ning the FCC from many stand­points. He is the son of In­dian im­mi­grants, so he comes to the ta­ble with a strong world view. He went to Har­vard Univer­sity, where he fo­cused on so­cial stud­ies, and then even­tu­ally re­ceived a law de­gree from the Univer­sity of Chicago.

Pai also hap­pens to have worked two years as an as­so­ciate gen­eral coun­sel at Ver­i­zon and may still have a strong in­ter­est in what ben­e­fits that ISP.

Pai ar­rived at the FCC as an ap­pointee un­der the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion. When Trump be­came Pres­i­dent, Pai’s pro-big-busi­ness stance was pre­cisely the kind of at­ti­tude Trump’s team was look­ing for. Pai’s back­ground in a se­nior le­gal po­si­tion at ISP gi­ant Ver­i­zon was just the ic­ing on that par­tic­u­lar cake.

Pai – both in where he came from and in his cur­rent po­si­tion of power – per­son­i­fies what the true power of that 40+% who pos­si­bly stand against net neu­tral­ity means. It is a perfect ex­am­ple of what the mod­ern joke about the 21st-cen­tury golden rule is in op­er­a­tion – that “he who has the gold makes the rules.”get ready, Amer­ica. Ac­cess to the In­ter­net as we have known it so far is about to go through a seis­mic shift like no other to date. The changes will likely be small at first, and many peo­ple won’t no­tice. Amer­i­cans are able to ac­cept al­most any­thing if it is in­tro­duced grad­u­ally.

One day we will wake up to a san­i­tized and of­fi­cially ap­proved In­ter­net that costs vastly more while giv­ing us ac­cess to vastly less. And only a few will won­der how this all came to pass.

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