A common refrain in popular news media is that net neutrality is just too boring and esoteric for ordinary people to be interested in. “Oh my god that is the most boring thing I’ve ever seen,” John Oliver (HBO, 6/1/14) once exclaimed after showing his audience a short clip from a government hearing on the subject. “That is even boring by C-SPAN standards.”
"As the new FCC under Trump-appointed chair Ajit Pai prepares to roll back the net neutrality rules put in place just two years ago, corporate media appear to have largely sidelined the activist perspective."
Net neutrality is the principle that internet data should be transmitted without discrimination. Absent net neutrality rules, internet service providers (ISPs) are free to act as gatekeepers, controlling which data users have access to and at what speed.
Oliver proved himself wrong. His 2014 segment, which explained net neutrality and successfully implored the public to support the FCC’s proposed reclassification of ISPs as “common carriers” under the Telecommunications Act, so that they could be regulated as public utilities, has been viewed over 13 million times on YouTube. 3.7 million people sent comments to the FCC that year.
Clearly, if net neutrality is framed in a context an audience can relate to, they are very interested and get involved; it is not so much a problem of boredom but of understanding the underlying importance, which Oliver illuminated. But he also made another important observation: “What’s being proposed is so egregious, activists and corporations have been forced on the same side.”
As the new FCC under Trump-appointed chair Ajit Pai prepares to roll back the net neutrality rules put in place just two years ago, corporate media appear to have largely sidelined the activist perspective. Instead, they have presented the issue as a simple matter of which corporate brands consumers prefer.
“Amazon, Google in last ditch protest to support Net Neutrality,” proclaimed USA Today (7/10/17). “Google, Amazon Plan Protest Against FCC Plans to Reverse Net Neutrality,” CNBC reported (7/17/17). “Tech Companies Rally on Net Neutrality Day of Action,” CBS (7/12/17) declared. CNN (7/12/17): “Tech Companies Go Big and Small for Net Neutrality Protest.” NBC (7/12/17): “Google and Facebook Join Net Neutrality Day to Protest FCC’s Proposed Rollback.” And on and on.
To be sure, these companies contributed to the “Day of Action to Save Net Neutrality” organized by Fight for the Future, a nonprofit internet advocacy organization, but they were by no means the only participants. The ACLU, Free Press, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the American Library Association and the nonprofit Mozilla Foundation (to name just a few) all reaffirmed their noncommercial commitment to defend net neutrality.
By characterizing the debate over net neutrality as a clash of corporate titans, the press not only alienates readers who don’t have the time to worry about squabbles in the business world, but also misconstrues what is at stake in the struggle for power over one of humankind’s most important inventions of the last millennium.
Net neutrality is, at base, a question of who should control access to the internet, which, as Harvard law professor Susan Crawford explained in her 2008 testimony before Congress,
is best understood as a collective agreement to use a particular language (the Internet Protocol) when connecting computing machines to telephone, fiber and cable lines that are interconnected around the world.
In other words, the internet should not be conflated with either the corporations that facilitate Americans’ access to the network, or the corporations that produce content transmitted over that network; the internet is a global means of electronic communication that transcends any particular commercial application.
Perhaps it is only natural that media so thoroughly saturated by corporate influence would have trouble explaining socio-political issues beyond that restricted frame. But even corporate media’s coverage of the business angle ranges from incoherent to unethical.
Following an introductory video on the potential economic implications of dismantling net neutrality on MSNBC (7/14/17)—which is owned by Comcast, the largest cable ISP in the nation—Ali Velshi and Stephanie Ruhle proceeded to dismantle any understanding their viewers might have gleaned from it.
“One of the issues is government just hasn’t caught up with technology—no one has, given how fast things have moved,” Ruhle surmised.
“Right,” Velshi agreed, “there are 23-year-olds inventing some of these fantastic websites and these apps, and the government is still thinking about the way it applies trade regulations when, you know, Staples and Office Depot want to merge,” naming two presumably old-school businesses.
A better example might have been Comcast’s recent attempt to acquire Time Warner Cable, which would have given it control of 40 percent of the broadband market. That merger fell apart after the Department of Justice, which apparently had not “caught up with technology,” signaled its disapproval on antitrust grounds (Justice.gov, 4/24/15). TWC was eventually purchased by Charter to form the second-largest ISP in the country, now known as Spectrum.
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Or, even more relevant, Comcast’s successful takeover of NBCUniversal in 2010, making it the most powerful vertically integrated telecommunications and content provider in the history of the world. But these examples are inconvenient if one’s agenda is to convince viewers that government regulators are incompetent and corporate America is the proper steward of the public interest.
Last year CNBC (2/12/16), another Comcast property, dropped even the pretense of objectivity and invited the CEO of AT&T, the third-largest ISP in America, to set viewers straight on net neutrality. “Not everybody knows all the nuances like you do,” Joe Kernen gushed, before asking Randall Stephenson, “What would help or hurt AT&T based on what’s in front of the court?”
Stephenson expressed optimism, in light of a Supreme Court decision to block the Obama administration’s climate-change regulations, that “the courts are pushing back on some of the regulatory overreach.” Petitioners for the plaintiff in that case, pending before the DC Circuit Court, include dozens of corporate industry associations and private-utility monopolies.
One year later, AT&T is set to buy what remains of Time Warner, giving it the kind of control over both the creation and delivery of online content to millions of Americans that worries those concerned about concentrated media power. Although a federal court recently upheld net neutrality regulation, no doubt Stephenson is encouraged by the new DOJ’s more permissive attitude toward corporate mergers (Bloomberg, 7/24/17).
MSNBC’s Velshi was more interested in downplaying the concern. “Even the internet providers say they’re OK with a light touch in regulation,” he explained, using language lifted from Pai’s speech on rolling back net neutrality rules. “Their argument is that this entire internet has grown with relatively light-touch regulation, why do you want to throw more on it?”
The claim that the internet developed as a result of “light-touch regulation” is central to Pai’s argument against net neutrality—and it’s utterly false. In fact, the internet was first introduced to Americans via dial-up connections transmitted over phone lines already subject to common carriage regulation. Because phone companies, as regulated utilities, were required to treat all transmissions over their lines equally, scores of ISPs were able to offer services across the country, and robust competition ensued.
The sea change came with the development of broadband and the two competing technologies that facilitate it: DSL and cable. While DSL (transmitted over phone lines) had been subject to common carriage, in 2002 the FCC under Michael Powell made a fateful decision to classify cable modem service as an “information service” rather than a “telecommunications service,” thereby greatly weakening its regulatory authority. The Supreme Court later deferred to the FCC’s interpretation of these concepts in its 2005 Brand X decision.
The superiority of cable for transmitting high-bandwidth content, the rapid consolidation of the ISP market over the last three decades, and the latter-day “light-touch” regulatory approach in Washington have all contributed to the present situation in which, according to the current FCC’s own assessment, 90 percent of Americans have at most two choices for high-speed internet. Where we do have access, our options are slower and more expensive than in much of the developed world.
Nevertheless, corporate media have failed to educate the public on the history of common carriage and the true stakeholders in the current debate over net neutrality, opting instead to frame it as a corporate battle royale, and to let readers pick a side. Do you like Netflix? Well, then you’re for net neutrality! Or is AT&T more your type?
The inevitable outcome of conjoining public and corporate interest was demonstrated in reactions to Comcast and other ISPs’ disingenuous expression of “support” for net neutrality (AP, 7/12/17). In an explainer on “How to Smoke Out Where Broadband Companies Stand on Net Neutrality” (New York Times, 7/13/17), Farhad Manjoo simply adopted the companies’ position: “Maybe it is time to push Congress, rather than the FCC, to take up the neutrality fight,” he wrote, despite acknowledging “there is a Republican Congress, a Republican president and a deregulatory mood ascendant in Washington.”
Berin Szoka, president of the advocacy group TechFreedom, concurred in the Washington Post (7/19/17): “Democrats should have worked out a legislative deal while they held the White House. It’s not too late, but it soon might be,” he warned.
The problem is that the long history of telecommunications law belies these naïve appeals. As T.C. Sottek pointed out for The Verge (7/12/17), “There’s a reason the ISPs are all saying the same thing, and it’s because they’re very confident they will defeat the interests of consumers and constituents.” And while it is true that the current FCC is no friend of net neutrality, legislation always outlasts the president who signs it into law.
"Corporate media’s coverage of net neutrality puts the people in the back seat."
In 2014, two political scientists compared the influence of the opinions of ordinary citizens had on policymaking compared to the views of the wealthy and organized, mostly business-oriented lobbying groups (APSA, 9/14). “When the preferences of economic elites and the stands of organized interest groups are controlled for,” they reported, “the preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.”
So while it might seem like friendly corporations are coming to the aid of activists in the debate over net neutrality, the truth is that for-profit, publicly traded corporations don’t have friends—they have interests, which they spend millions lobbying in Washington to defend. When profits are at stake, any stated principles may be set aside.
Meanwhile, in her book Captive Audience, Susan Crawford recalls the Populist Party platform of 1892, when America was dealing with the monopolized private control of that century’s preeminent transmission technology: “We believe that the time has come when the railroad corporations will either own the people or the people must own the railroads,” the party wrote.
While the technology has changed, the underlying question remains the same: Will the American people control their own access to the internet, or be subjected to the whims of corporate interest? Unfortunately, corporate media’s coverage of net neutrality puts the people in the back seat.