This is a looting by telecom monopolists and an FCC commissioner who has shown no interest in engaging with the American people.
Image: Michael Reynolds
These are the facts: Millions of Americans have asked the Federal Communications Commission to keep its current net neutrality regulations, which protect the free and open internet. These regulations were enacted as a result of decades of hearings, meetings, and legal battles. They have broad bipartisan public support. The current regulations have been upheld in court. They have not decreased investment in broadband, according to broadband companies themselves. And they are about to be dismantled.
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has called those fighting to protect the open internet “hyperbolic” and “desperate.” He reads “mean tweets” to create viral hate clicks for conservative publications, jokes about being an industry shill at the “Telecom Prom,” and says Hollywood celebrities are the reason everyone is so riled up. His public pitch for repealing the regulations—to the extent that there is one at all—often boils down to suggesting that people who want the regulations to remain in place are hysterical or are overblowing the situation.
But you’re not hysterical: This is an undemocratic looting by telecom monopolists and an FCC commissioner who has shown no interest in engaging with the people of this country, let alone serving their best interests.
A poll released this week by the Program for Public Consultation and Voice of the People at the University of Maryland found that 83 percent of Americans—and 75 percent of Republicans—favor the current system (the group that conducted the poll clearly explained the current regulations as well as the proposed ones). Pai, meanwhile, has said that “volume and vitriol are not substitutes for actual arguments” and has stated that “desperate” people are raising “hyperbolic fears” about net neutrality violations that “never materialized before 2015.”
The “actual argument” for net neutrality that has been made, time and time again, is that without regulations that require ISPs to treat internet infrastructure as a data- and content-neutral pipe, they will be empowered to pick which types of websites and web services get preferential treatments on their networks. There are many examples of this already happening: AT&T blocking FaceTime and Comcast blocking BitTorrent are among the most famous.
But one need not understand net neutrality or telecom policy in order to realize that what the FCC is doing is both highly unusual and extremely fucked up:
- The FCC has declined to participate in a New York State attorney general probe into irregularities in the agency’s commenting process. There is public evidence that shows approximately a million stolen identities—including those of dead people—were used to support the FCC’s proposed net neutrality rollback.
- The FCC is being sued for not responding to Freedom of Information Act requests about net neutrality.
- Pai has said that there is no evidence that telecom companies violated net neutrality prior to the 2015 regulations. In addition to the Comcast and AT&T examples I listed above, here is a long list of telecom companies violating net neutrality prior to 2015. Comcast, meanwhile, has quietly removed a promise to honor net neutrality principles on its website.
- Pai’s FCC has also failed to enforce the current regulations as telecom companies use zero rating to favor video and music streaming services that they own or partner with. More than 50,000 consumer reports of net neutrality violations since 2015 have been ignored in the public comment process.
- Pai, the FCC, and telecom companies have falsely stated that net neutrality protections prevent telecom companies from using dedicated bandwidth for telemedicine that could help people who are sick and disabled. There is, in fact, a massive carveout in the current regulations that exempt companies from the rules for telemedicine services.
- Pai, the FCC, and think tanks funded by telecom companies have stated that net neutrality regulations have hurt broadband investment; telecom companies have told their investors that investment is increasing.
- Pai and the FCC have claimed that net neutrality regulations have hurt small ISPs, but have presented no data to back up this claim, and data that is available suggests the opposite is true.
- Technologists involved in the creation of the internet and its protocols said that Pai’s net neutrality repeal is “based on a flawed and factually inaccurate understanding of internet technology.”
“Procedural irregularity is really easy to spot,” Cory Doctorow, co-founder of BoingBoing and an activist with the Electronic Frontier Foundation who has been involved in the net neutrality fight for years told me. “When people act in ways that discredit the democratic process—when they throw away millions of comments—one after another after another of garbage people tactics—it’s easy for people to take the rule of thumb that shenanigans are usually there to mess me over, and say, ‘OK, this is definitely something that’s messing me over.’”
So no, you’re not wrong: This is a heist that is in line with a party and administration that has found itself in the temporary and tenuous position of being able to gift wrap tremendously unpopular legislation and regulatory rollbacks to corporate donors before a wave of progressive backlash gains the electoral clout necessary to turn off the faucet.
It is governance that rewards an industry that has spent a decade setting up an apparatus propped up by astroturf advocacy groups, think tanks they have funded, politicians they have bought, and a persistence that is only possible with an army of lawyers and unfathomably deep pockets.
There is little time to stop Thursday’s vote, but the millions of people who have fought to protect net neutrality should know that they were not wrong to speak up. They should remember the style of governance that allowed this to happen and vow to remove it from power as soon as possible.