The Internet came alive with anger and protest on November 21 after Federal Communication Commission (FCC) chairman Ajit Pai announced the agency’s plan to roll back a framework of protections commonly referred to as “Net Neutrality” in favor of deregulation in the interests of big business and private profit. #SaveTheInternet quickly became the top trending hashtag on Twitter, and the front page of social news website Reddit was covered with articles encouraging the site’s users to take action.
What is Net Neutrality?
Net Neutrality is the simple principle that the Internet Service Providers (ISPs) like AT&T, Comcast and Verizon can’t tamper with websites we visit, selectively slowing down or blocking access entirely to sites and services they don’t like or that compete with their own services.
For example, Comcast is a major TV and Internet provider to millions of homes across the country and also owns a number of television channels and movie companies, including NBC, Universal Pictures, E!, CNBC Syfy, DreamWorks and Telemundo. Streaming TV services like Netflix and YouTube are in competition with many of these offerings. Without Net Neutrality, Comcast could slow down or entirely remove access to those websites, forcing customers to pay extra to get to them. The ISPs could create virtual “slow lanes”on the Internet, demanding more money for faster access to select websites.
This practice would be antithetical to the basic way the Internet works. Data is data going through cables or wirelessly, and there is no technical reason that a streaming video should cost more than a news article or Facebook message. These changes would only serve to increase private profits for the telecommunications companies.
The dangerous effects of repeal
Practically everyone who uses the Internet – 90 percent of people in the United States – will be effected by the repeal of Net Neutrality. People who use streaming video or music services for recreation could be charged more just to access them. Social media services could be restricted at a telecom’s whim.
Portuguese cellular company MEO, owned by the country’s largest telecommunications company Portugal Telecom, shows what Internet access in the U.S. could look like if Net Neutrality is repealed. On top of its basic rates for mobile service, it charges €4.99/month for access to social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Video services like Netflix and YouTube are an additional €4.99/month package, as are streaming audio services like Spotify. There is no technical basis for this tiered pricing, and especially in the cases of messaging and social media platforms, it could restrict the ability for people to communicate with family and friends.
Activists and organizers will also feel the effects of repeal. In addition to charging more for access to social media sites that are commonly used for communicating about organizing, it would be entirely possible and legal for an ISP to block access to alternative news sources — or any website they’d like. This could be a reality as the telecommunications companies have deep corporate ties via ownership or partnership with the vast majority of large media outlets across the country. Imagine if everyone in the country who uses AT&T at home or on their cell phone couldn’t access Liberation News!
A lesser-known provision of the FCC proposal would put the Federal Trade Commission in charge of regulatory oversight for defending online privacy and security. Even in the wake of hundreds of major data breaches in the last few years where companies like Equifax, Uber, Adobe and others have been hacked, the FCC and Congress have already shown themselves to be unwilling and unable to significantly punish companies for lax security of sensitive information. The FTC is even more toothless and does not have the capacity to create proactive regulations.
ISPs oppose Net Neutrality because of capitalist greed
In the introduction of the FCC’s Fact Sheet announcing the decision, the agency says that “[t]he Commission imposed heavy-handed, utility-style regulation on Internet service providers (ISPs).” This is a reference to an FCC decision in 2015 to classify Internet Service Providers as “common carriers,” placing them under the same regulatory framework as phone companies. These regulations are overseen by the FCC and were put in place by Title II of the Communications Act of 1934. As applied to ISPs, Title II officially made Net Neutrality the policy: companies cannot discriminate against different types of Internet traffic.
The attack on Net Neutrality and other regulations by major telecommunication companies is not a new phenomenon. Under capitalism, any attempt to regulate or restrict corporations in defense of the rights of their customers and workers is seen as an attack on the ability of the business to make profits. The Telecommunications Act of 1996, passed unanimously in the House of Representatives, by an 81-18 vote in the Senate and signed by then-President Bill Clinton, relaxed significant portions of the Communications Act of 1934. Its most significant effect was to loosen restrictions on media consolidation, allowing fewer and fewer companies to own more and more television and radio stations and newspapers. The deregulatory effects of the 1996 Act had a devastating effect on local media. On the national level, 50 companies owned 90 percent of national media outlets in 1983. In 2017, five companies have that same level of ownership.
Proponents of the “free market” claim that Internet users could just choose to go with another company if they don’t like their existing ISP. Because of severely loosened antitrust and anti-monopoly regulations, millions of households don’t have access to more than one provider that offers broadband service.
Who is Ajit Pai?
The FCC announcement is in line with the Trump administration’s attacks on regulations on everything from business to education and the environment. Much attention has rightly been paid to the role that Ajit Pai has played in this decision.
After his inauguration, Donald Trump appointed Pai as the Chairman of the FCC. While he has held many jobs between the private and public sectors, Pai is most notably a former lawyer for Verizon — a major telecommunications company and ISP. After leaving Verizon in 2003 and then serving in the Senate Judiciary Committee, he was a lawyer for the FCC during a time that it loosened or outright ignored many of its own regulations and further paved the way for mass concentration of media ownership. He was appointed in 2012 by Barack Obama as a member of the FCC and then unanimously confirmed the U.S. Senate. The bipartisan support for Pai, his work on deregulation and his connections to lobbying firms and corporate megaconglomerates shows that his intentions are not to protect working people, but instead private profits.
What’s the solution?
Some proponents of Net Neutrality advocate for building decentralized, community-based networking infrastructures, encouraging local communities to build and maintain their own connections to the Internet using a variety of wired and wireless technologies. These initiatives are important and necessary, particularly in rural areas of the country where 51 million people still lack basic access to high-speed broadband Internet because the telecommunications companies have deemed them not profitable enough.
What these projects don’t address is the existing Internet infrastructure that has already been deployed across the country. A recent four-year analysis by the University of Wisconsin revealed that there are over 113,000 miles of fiber optic cable stretching from coast to coast, owned by the major telecommunication companies. This is on top of the vast amount of cable for local connections to our homes and businesses from our ISPs, run underground or on telephone poles.
The telecommunication companies often claim in carefully-prepared statements by a CEO or PR team that they have spent trillions of dollars developing this infrastructure. These statements always ignore the fact that it was workers, not millionaire and billionaire executives, who laid these cables, built the networking technology to connect them and maintain them on a daily basis. Workers are behind the physical infrastructure that powers the Internet, and workers should be the ones to benefit from it.
The FCC will vote on the new proposal at its Open Meeting on December 14. Already, people have mobilized to sign petitions write and call their representatives and even organized protests at the FCC and around the country to save Net Neutrality.
Saving Net Neutrality is a critical step at this point — but to fully save the Internet from further dominance by for-profit corporations, we must demand that all telecommunications — phone, TV and Internet – be nationalized to make free, open and usable Internet access a right for all people!