As many predicted just over a year ago, net neutrality regulation in the USA has now hit the fan. And this time it’s not just about the Internet, consumer rights, or network economics. It’s about power over politics and speech in an environment where both are highly toxic. The Federal Communication Commission (FCC) released their 210-page policy document outlining the end of net neutrality while most Americans were distracted by preparing their Thanksgiving dinners. Knowing the interests and emotions around net neutrality first hand, this sneaky maneuver will likely be met with fierce resistance and cost the FCC as well as the Trump administration dearly. It’s no longer about efficient investments into telecom infrastructure, as argued by some, but about who controls ideas and opinions.
I only sometimes get involved with the actual policymaking processes: mostly I prefer to be on the sidelines to give input and advice where it’s useful. The two moments when I chose to be actively involved in the center of policy debates were around online copyright enforcement and net neutrality. An open Internet—ensured by net neutrality policy— is so important for a modern free society, that some colleagues and I co-wrote the first law protecting it in the Netherlands, which we later helped implement for the whole EU.
Situations without net neutrality
Our assumption was that an open internet is immediately threatened when gatekeepers (i.e. telecom companies) can block, slow down, or prioritize data systematically, for profit or to support other interests. Indeed, we see in countries that don’t have net neutrality laws a situation where telecom companies charge monthly fees for access to certain websites and apps, rather than offering access to the full Internet. Not only are telecom companies in these countries earning money through demand for services they only provide access to, they are also in a position to decide which applications and websites consumers may access in the first place. This gives significant power to companies that are the gatekeepers to how most people interact with information, and rewards them with protectionist measures.
Fake news, elections and protection
But net neutrality is now even more important in an environment where news is easily dismissed as fake, the Internet is a dominant force to sway democratic elections, and business sectors from the last century are promised protections. The FCC’s policy allows the monopolistic telecom companies—that have some of the very lowest consumer respect in the USA—to control the public sphere, by deciding which websites people can access, and which remain invisible for large parts of society. Such power allows these companies to decide which op-eds are read, which forums people can access to discuss politics and things that matter to them, and which platforms disseminate political speech. In a modern society, these are the spaces where a functional democracy thrives, by letting people use their rights to free speech to publicly correct actual fake news stories.
While still important, we’re no longer just talking about leveling the competitive playing fields for innovative companies. It seems like the current administration is happy to hand this social and political power to monopolies, thereby effectively giving up an open society in favor of corporate control. If this is just the next policy designed specifically and primarily to divide the American people, this will likely miss the mark: the backlash from citizens and organizations to keep net neutrality in place will be very strong. I’m looking forward to engaging with covert PR campaigns in Twitter!
Bendert ZevenbergenAcademic Liaison at Princeton University