Let’s be clear about last week’s Federal Communications Commission (FCC) ruling to repeal net neutrality or open internet. The vote, among political party lines, has less to do with creating an open market place where magnanimous frothing telecommunications ogres can compete equally with young brash mega-giant social media titans. Instead, this decision is part of an on-going war between telecoms and social media companies for control and dominance of the multi-billion dollar advertising market. And, the biggest causalities of this war, are the poor and the free marketplace of diverse thought and expression.
In 2015, the FCC passed the Open Internet Order which banned three practices that harmed an open internet: blocking, throttling, and paid prioritization. Perhaps more importantly, the Order codified net neutrality rules and asserted the FCC’s legal authority to regulate telecommunications companies Under Title II as common carriers. Moreover, the Open Internet Order cemented three core net neutrality pillars formally adopted under President George W. Bush: the freedom to access all lawful internet content, the freedom to use any online service or online application, and an open market for network, content, and service providers. The standing order applied to both fixed and mobile broadband internet service. The 3-2 vote, in favor of Democrats at the time, included a notable dissent by now FCC Chairman Ajit Pai. Pai, who was general counsel for Verizon from 2001-2003 made it clear that net neutrality would not stand.
As fate would have it, Chairman Pai is now leading the crusade against net neutrality. And, in last week’s 3-2 FCC ruling favoring Republicans, Pai and his colleagues were able to take advantage of the change in FCC membership and repeal the Open Internet Order. This action effectively abolished net neutrality principles. Politics to be sure, this act of deregulation allows broadband companies such as AT&T and Verizon to increase internet speed or provide free access to social media sites and digital vendors it prefers and decreases internet speed or charge fees to users who want to access rival sites or applications. Effectively, depending on where and how users may have limited access to the internet or be charged a premium to access sites like Facebook.
And the point of it all? Money. He who controls internet access controls the market. According to a 2016 eMarketer study, $82.86 billion will be spent on US digital ads this year, surpassing TV as the major source of advertising dollars. And that figure is expected to increase in the coming years. Deregulation will now allow broadband companies to not only charge consumers for access to their favorite websites or apps of choice but can also limit or even prohibit users access to their desired content. By restriction and paid prioritization, telecoms can effectively set the price for internet access and steer users and advertisers to telecom owned or affiliated sites. Obstensively, mega broadband companies that own entertainment, music, news, and social media sites have hi-jacked advertisers and users who may prefer rival products and services.
So? This tiered level of internet access disproportionally affects the poor and abridges the diversity of thought and expression. If indeed the internet is the main marketplace for the exchange of goods and ideas, the end of net neutrality marks the end of diverse viewpoints and free creative expression. According to a 2017 report by Brookings Institutes, 1 in 4 people or 73.5 million Americans live in low broadband subscription neighborhoods. The report goes on to say that residents of low-income or rural neighborhoods with broadband services have internet speeds far less than 25Mbps, the standard for downloads, and multi-household user connections. Recent social movements such as the Women’s March, #BeToo, Black Lives Matter were possible because of the internet. The exchange of music, civic discourse, and ability to redress the government were all substantially increased because of the internet and unfettered access to social media sites. If the internet is allowed to be controlled by companies with more of an appetite for revenue rue, than a user balanced diet, then we will all starve. Our democracy and the very fabric of our society is in tethers if mega telecoms continue to weave the internet access fabric on a battlefield of freedom. I fear the rise of a dystopian society if net neutrality is allowed to die.