The Federal Communications Commission has once again become industry’s servant. Ajit Pai, the former Verizon lawyer and current Trump-appointed FCC chairman, has ushered in a virulent strain of market libertarianism, pledging to use a “weed whacker” against common-sense Internet regulations.
A key part of Pai’s agenda is to hollow out net neutrality, the public interest safeguard that prevents Internet service providers from discriminatory practices like blocking or slowing down online content or coercing fees from content providers to create pay-to-play fast lanes.
The debate over net neutrality has always been much more than a technocratic squabble over controlling Internet pipes. What it’s really about is a far larger power struggle over access to information and people’s rights to express themselves politically and creatively. It’s also about the government’s role in ensuring a level playing field and preventing corporate monopolies from abusing a socially vital infrastructure.
The net neutrality debate is more than a squabble over Internet pipes. It's a struggle over access to information.
In other words, net neutrality is part of a social contract between information providers, government, and society. This contract must include a clear regulatory role for the FCC because without it market forces won’t automatically provide and protect public goods like information.
In 2015, following more than a decade of grassroots activism and nearly 4 million public comments to the FCC, strong net neutrality protections passed by a 3-2 party-line vote. A rare public-interest victory, this ruling returned the Internet to the status of a telecommunications service, giving the FCC the regulatory authority needed to prevent corporate gatekeeping.
Pai voted against the rule as a commissioner, and, since becoming chairman, he has undermined net neutrality by canceling an investigation into service providers’ increasingly common practice of “zero rating,” which gives unfair advantage over competitors by exempting a provider’s preferred content from consumers’ monthly data limits.
Last week Pai unveiled his plan to further weaken net neutrality protections. Despite disingenuous pro-consumer rationales, he’s essentially giving the telecom lobby exactly what they’ve wanted for years: self-oversight.
Corporate libertarians justify these actions as freeing industry from onerous governmental overreach. They call it “deregulation,” but a more accurate name for this agenda is re-regulation—the government still intervenes to restructure society’s core systems, only now it is doing so to benefit corporate interests instead of the public’s. The FCC’s latest moves are identical to items on the cable and phone companies’ long-standing policy wish lists.
By harmonizing its actions with those businessess it is supposed to oversee, Pai’s FCC is following a textbook scenario of what economists call “regulatory capture,” whereby an agency loses its independence as it internalizes the commercial interests of the industries it purportedly regulates. Allowing Internet service providers to pick and choose what we can do online is a prime example. Another one was the recent Republican vote to revoke broadband privacy protections, allowing providers to collect and sell information about our web-browsing histories without permission.
One contributing factor to regulatory capture is the much-lamented revolving door. For decades, most commissioners have left the FCC to serve the very industries they previously regulated. While former FCC commissioner Michael Copps is a notable exception, the career trajectory of former FCC chairman Michael Powell, now president of the top cable television trade association, demonstrates the rule. It’s worth remembering that it was then-chairman Powell who initially classified cable Internet as a lightly regulated “information service” 15 years ago.
We can only guess what Chairman Pai’s long-term career goals are, but his allegiances are clear. In addition to invoking numerous falsehoods, such as the myth that net neutrality hurts broadband investments, Pai has even resorted to red-baiting open Internet activists, suggesting that their true aim is to dismantle capitalism. This rhetoric masks a deeper ideology—one focused on serving the class interests of the wealthy elite and corporate oligopolies.
In many ways, net neutrality is a secondary problem. Until we confront core injustices stemming from unregulated monopoly power—which may worsen given the likelihood of massive media mergers—we can’t address issues like slow broadband speeds, outrageously high prices, digital red-lining (not providing broadband access to poorer communities outside profitable areas), and the woeful lack of competition in Internet service markets.
What’s to be done? In addition to raising holy hell on the streets and online and contacting the FCC, we need to relentlessly expose and challenge absurdities like the claim that net neutrality amounts to government control of the Internet. And we need to clarify that what’s at stake is nothing less than the Internet’s democratic potential. Losing this potential will disproportionately hurt communities of color, activist groups, and small publishers.
Net neutrality critics claim it’s a solution in search of a problem. But there’s a long history of net neutrality violations. And there’s an even longer history showing that communication industries are incapable of self-regulation. Meanwhile, many other democracies are moving in the opposite direction. For example, Canada’s main telecommunications regulator recently ruled against “zero rating.”
Make no mistake: Killing net neutrality is a top-down corporate power grab. There’s absolutely no need to repeal it. The protection has tremendous public support. If Trump’s populism were anything more than a charade, we’d be reining in Internet service monopolies instead of giving them even more power.
As the FCC serves a narrow corporate agenda, we must find a way to recapture it for the people. The Internet is too valuable to leave to the mercy of monopolies. The battle for net neutrality continues. It’s a battle we can and must win.