Google, Facebook, and Netflix Decide They Care About Net Neutrality Again

A group the corporations are a part of will sue the FCC, but where were they during the fight to protect net neutrality in the first place?

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Jan 9 2018, 2:00pm

Image: Shutterstock / Composition: Jason Koebler

A coalition of internet companies is promising to take the FCC to court for its rushed repeal of popular net neutrality rules.

The Internet Association, whose members include Facebook, Google, Netflix, Lyft, and others, has issued a statement indicating it plans to participate in the looming lawsuits against the agency. Those lawsuits should drop shortly after the FCC’s repeal hits the Federal Register, something that should happen with the next few months.

“The final version of Chairman Pai’s rule, as expected, dismantles popular net neutrality protections for consumers,” said IA CEO Michael Beckerman.

“This rule defies the will of a bipartisan majority of Americans and fails to preserve a free and open internet,” notes the group. “IA intends to act as an intervenor in judicial action against this order and, along with our member companies, will continue our push to restore strong, enforceable net neutrality protections through a legislative solution.”

Said “legislative solution” could be a tricky path forward. Most net neutrality advocates support saving the current rules through either a reversal of the repeal using the Congressional Review Act, or waiting for the looming court battle. Especially given the numerous procedural missteps and fraudulent behavior the FCC looked the other way from during the repeal.

Large ISPs are pushing for a net neutrality “legislative solution” of their own, though their intent is to pass a loophole-filled net neutrality law with one real function: preventing tougher, real rules from being passed later.

That said, the IA is right to note that survey after survey continues to highlight how net neutrality has broad, bipartisan support. A survey from Mozilla last year found that 81 percent of Democrats and 73 percent of Republicans are in favor of net neutrality. The issue is often only framed as “partisan” by industry lobbyists, all-too-eager to foment discord and stall the passage and enforcement of real rules.

That said, several of IA’s member companies have spotty histories when it comes to standing up for net neutrality, especially during this latest contentious stretch of the longstanding fight against telecom duopolies.

Facebook, for example, has routinely found itself under fire for trampling net neutrality overseas.

The company faced significant backlash in India for a walled-garden program that provided free access to only Facebook-selected content partners. This practice of zero rating was ultimately banned by the Indian government, after numerous critics (including Mozilla) pointed out that funding actual access to the entire internet was more important than providing a limited version of it to Indian people.

Despite the fact that Google is still routinely portrayed as a net neutrality advocate in the media, meaningful support for net neutrality from Google at this juncture can rarely be found outside of blanket statements issued by proxy groups

Google’s dedication to net neutrality has also proven elusive in recent years.

The company vocally supported net neutrality until around 2010, when its interest in both fixed broadband (Google Fiber) and wireless (Project Fi, Android) resulted in an about face in public Google policy positions. And while the company did lobby for net neutrality protections in 2010, it worked covertly with AT&T and Verizon to ensure those initial rules were so flimsy as to be largely useless (Google helped ensure they didn’t cover wireless whatsoever). Google was largely silent during the 2014 and 2015 net neutrality proceedings.

Despite the fact that Google is still routinely portrayed as a net neutrality advocate in the media, meaningful support for net neutrality from Google at this juncture can rarely be found outside of blanket statements issued by proxy groups like the Internet Association (though the company did acknowledge industry claims that net neutrality hurt investment were false).

As Google’s dedication to net neutrality waned, co-IA member Netflix had been picking up the slack as the biggest and most profitable supporter of net neutrality. In large part because Netflix’s own business was impacted when incumbent ISPs began intentionally causing slowdowns at interconnection points in a quest to drive up rates for content and transit companies several years ago.

But that dedication has also wavered as the streaming video giant has grown wealthier and more powerful.

Speaking at an industry event last year, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings made it abundantly clear that the company views net neutrality as somebody else’s problem now that the company is large and successful enough to be able to afford incumbent ISP extortion efforts.

“The Trump FCC is going to unwind the rules no matter what anybody says,” Hastings argued. While net neutrality is “important for society,” he stated, net neutrality is “not our primary battle at this point” adding that “we don’t have a special vulnerability to it” now that Netflix has the resources to pay the demands of entrenched ISPs like Verizon and Comcast.

“We had to carry the water when we were growing up and we were small,” Hastings said. “Other companies have to be on that leading edge.”

Of course that’s an arguably myopic position, considering that Netflix’s resources could go a long way toward ensuring that the Netflix of tomorrow can actually afford to compete with the AT&T, Verizon and Comcast of today. After heavy criticism the company did reiterate its dedication to net neutrality last summer, and has ramped up its support on Twitter.

All of that said, IA has a large roster of tech company members whose dedication to the subject has never wavered. That includes Etsy, who issued a statement saying it would be filing suit against the FCC on behalf or the millions of small businesses that rely on a healthy, competitive internet.

“The FCC’s decision to overturn net neutrality rules was deeply disappointing for those of us who have fought so hard for the strong protections that enable millions of microbusinesses to start and grow online,” Etsy said. “Under the FCC’s new proposal, millions of small business, like Etsy’s 1.9 million sellers, could find themselves in the internet slow lane or blocked altogether.”

The Internet Association is expected to be just one of numerous industry groups and consumer advocacy firms who plan to file suit against the FCC’s rules, highlighting how the agency ignored the public, ignored the experts, ignored rampant comment fraud, and relied almost exclusively on flimsy telecom lobbying data to dismantle the popular rules.

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