“… there is one inexorable law of technology, and it is this: when revolutionary inventions become widely accessible, they cease to be accessible. Technology is inherently democratic, because it promises the same services to all; but it works only if the rich are alone using it.” ~Umberto Eco
The FCC repealed the 2015 net neutrality policy last week and opened the floodgates for legal warfare and political pandering that will continue well into the new year. Those opposed to the decision bemoan this as the end of the internet, while those who support the decision hail it as the beginning of a new era in internet growth and infrastructure.
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s decision comes as Congressional Republicans are struggling to push a largely unpopular tax reform bill before the end of the year, the exact terms of which are vague at best other than the obvious that lean heavily toward corporate benefit. The giants of Silicon Valley, by and large, have spoken against the FCC’s decision whereas the major ISP companies, who stand to benefit the most, are claiming they’ll remain true to the needs and expectations of their customers. Here on the ground, it’s hard to believe that net neutrality, as a phrase and concept, has only been around for roughly a decade and wasn’t even understood by the general public until roughly three or four years ago. Yet, today, net neutrality seems to be the most significant tectonic shift in our economic, social, and cultural landscape and is quickly becoming the most poignant political pedestal for candidates to step up on or off of as they hope to unseat or hold their position in the 2018 midterm elections. The stakes seem so high and the noise right now is so deafening on both sides of the argument with industry wizards, tech junkies, and political pundits fighting over the megaphone that it’s nearly impossible to get any clarity on what is actually going on.
And we may not get any clarity anytime soon as the media accelerates their cycles and attorney generals from New York to Oregon are preparing lawsuits to tangle the FCC up in court attempting to preserve the integrity of the regulations in their respective states.
Any decision that grants ISPs (or anyone else) to control how and where we access data and information poses a notable threat to the life and vitality of the internet and the creative progress and free sharing of ideas and information that have become the heartbeat and blood flow of our political, cultural, and social survival. Therefore, to the same degree, it should also be noted that the terms of Title II (which are only 2 years old) may not be completely sufficient for preserving an “open” and “innovative” internet as such nor have they protected the internet from the horrors of foreclosed competition and filtered content distribution (ref. the combined power of content aggregation of Facebook, Google, the cloud computing influence of Amazon AWS, et al.)
Regardless, Pai’s decision does constitute an immediate cause for concern due to the timing and manner by which it was executed.
First, the blatant (seemingly strategic) refusal of the FCC to honor the sum 98.5 percent of the actual unique comments of public citizens who favored net neutrality regulations points to an obvious, serious institutional problem in governance. The problem is only compounded by the financial influence of the ISP industry on Congressional direction. While corporate lobbyists influencing public policy is certainly nothing new in American politics, this particular case is worth noting in light of the potential impact it could have on the nature and future of economic, cultural, and political growth and progress.
Second, the FCC’s vote happened the same day that Disney announced its acquisition of 21st Century Fox, a move that sets it on the imperial throne of the entertainment industry with an empire that extends into the far reaches of all media production, marketing, and distribution. I can’t and won’t begin to even try to outline the meteoric cultural and economic (maybe even political) impact of this acquisition. However, while Thursday’s events may not have an immediate literal connection (yet), they are certainly symbolic.
The broadband industry, for whom the repeal of net neutrality is intended to increase competitive progress and innovation, is already dominated by three companies – AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast. Over 95% of the total market is controlled by roughly 14 providers and still approximately 50 million households have access to only one provider. Going further, Facebook and Google control more than half of global digital advertising and own more than 60% in the United States (every other digital ad platform boasts less than 5%.) As of today, these two companies alone control nearly 88% of all referral traffic on the internet.
The symbolic importance of the Disney-Fox merger and the subsequent statistics presented serve only to point out just how centralized the information and entertainment industries already are – and to also warn against an oversimplified politicization of the issue that beats the drum of “this is the end of the internet as we know it” with a similar myopic historical perspective that leads some to believe the 1950s were America’s “Golden Age” and put on a red “Make America Great Again” hat.
The bottom line is, the issue of net neutrality is more complex than it’s being communicated, which brings me to concern number three. The FCC’s decision to repeal a significant step in preserving the internet access as a fundamental public service, such as water or electricity, comes at a time when the political institutions trusted to manage corporate monopolies are not adequately educated about the industry they’re being asked to or asked not to regulate. To compound the problem, the corporations who have all but monopolized the industry are being accused of mishandling the access, security, and integrity of the unprecedented amount of information and data with which they’ve been trusted.
And, here we are, somewhere below the government, the ISPs, and the Silicon Valley giants, the “constituents”, the “users”, and the “consumers” right in the middle of this hellish crossfire with the most to lose and no real say in the matter.
Or do we?
I do have hope that the events of last week mark the beginning of a watershed moment in which Americans wake up and realize that every purchase we make, site we click, service we use, and post we share carries as much weight in the survival of our democracy as every vote we cast on a ballot. I hope that we begin to consider that everywhere we put our time and our money says as much about our political convictions and ideas of justice as the stickers on our bumpers or the hashtags we include with every post on social media. I hope that we start seeking out, researching, and investing in the companies that strive for fairness and justice in their modes of production and distribution. I hope that the apparent rise in local political activism and investment is a revitalization of a unified democratic energy and fervor that will continue to gain strength and momentum as a positive force in preserving an open and free forum for ideas, artistic expression, and innovation. I also hope that it’s not too late to turn the tide, that the avenues by which we can discover those companies, those initiatives, haven’t already been compromised.
I hope that I don’t end up talking to my grandchildren about the internet the same way my grandparents remembered the good old days of radio.