Trump’s FCC Bids Farewell to the Internet as We Know It

The internet is about to become more expensive and far less free.

Mark Dunbar December 8, 2017

The internet already has enough gatekeepers—ISPs don’t need to be added to the list. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Update: On Decem­ber 14, the FCC vot­ed 3 – 2 to over­turn the 2015 net neu­tral­i­ty rules.

Why are ISPs really pushing the FCC to end net neutrality? The answer is simple: there’s a lot of money to be made if you’re in control of what people see online.

On Novem­ber 21, Fed­er­al Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Com­mis­sion (FCC) Chair­man Ajit Pai announced that the agency will vote Decem­ber 14 on whether to strike down 2015’s land­mark net neu­tral­i­ty rules. If the FCC lead­er­ship committee’s Repub­li­cans votes to over­turn the rules, as expect­ed, telecom­mu­ni­ca­tion com­pa­nies will be allowed to decide what users can access on the inter­net — and how much they will have to pay.

The rules adopt­ed in 2015 re-cat­e­go­rized inter­net ser­vice providers (ISPs) such as Com­cast, AT&T and Ver­i­zon from infor­ma­tion ser­vices” — a clas­si­fi­ca­tion applied to social net­work sites, search engines and blogs — to telecom­mu­ni­ca­tion ser­vices.” This re-cat­e­go­riza­tion, allowed the FCC to reg­u­late ISPs as com­mon car­ri­ers,” tra­di­tion­al­ly util­i­ty or infra­struc­ture com­pa­nies that pro­vide a gen­er­al ser­vice rather than spe­cial­ized pack­ages. As a result of this clas­si­fi­ca­tion, under Title II of the 1934 Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Act, the net neu­tral­i­ty rules made it ille­gal for ISPs to offer inter­net pack­ages that either exclude or pri­or­i­tize par­tic­u­lar con­tent providers — keep­ing the inter­net free and open.

Now, the FCC is poised to roll back these mea­sures and meet the demands of telecom­mu­ni­ca­tion lob­by­ists work­ing for com­pa­nies like AT&T and Com­cast who claim that the 2015 rules have sup­pressed broad­band net­work invest­ment. How­ev­er, when these com­pa­nies have been legal­ly oblig­at­ed to report to their investors, their num­bers and state­ments tell a very dif­fer­ent sto­ry.

Despite the claims that invest­ment has been harmed by the reclas­si­fi­ca­tion of ISPs as com­mon car­ri­ers — which the FCC has cit­ed as a pri­ma­ry rea­son for elim­i­nat­ing the net neu­tral­i­ty rules — a recent report from the inter­net free­dom advo­ca­cy group Free Press found that, not a sin­gle pub­licly trad­ed U.S. ISP ever told its investors (or the SEC) that Title II neg­a­tive­ly impact­ed its own invest­ments specifically.”

Chair­man Pai, for his part, has framed his pro­posed roll­back as sim­ply a return to the bipar­ti­san light touch frame­work that gov­erned the inter­net, start­ing in the Clin­ton admin­is­tra­tion,” as opposed to the Oba­ma administration’s heavy-hand­ed regulations.”

But while Chair­man Pai may con­sid­er these reg­u­la­tions heavy-hand­ed,” in fact they were put in place to stamp out abuses.

Before broad­band, inter­net users obtained access through dial-up, which was clas­si­fied as a telecom­mu­ni­ca­tion ser­vice. As broad­band became more com­mon through­out the 2000s, the FCC was reg­u­lar­ly bat­tling in court with ISPs. These com­pa­nies were tak­ing advan­tage of their erro­neous cat­e­go­riza­tion as an infor­ma­tion ser­vice, engag­ing in manip­u­la­tive prac­tices such as extort­ing con­tent providers, slow­ing down activ­i­ty they deemed inap­pro­pri­ate and block­ing user access to com­peti­tors’ web­sites. Such prac­tices were large­ly end­ed with the FCC’s 2015 rules.

So, why are ISPs real­ly push­ing the FCC to end net neu­tral­i­ty? The answer is sim­ple: there’s a lot of mon­ey to be made if you’re in con­trol of what peo­ple see online — just ask Google and Facebook. 

While it’s impos­si­ble to tell just how much ISPs stand to gain finan­cial­ly from the change, the mil­lions of dol­lars they’ve spent cam­paign­ing against net neu­tral­i­ty indi­cate that they expect to make a wind­fall. What is cer­tain is that much of the costs will be borne by inter­net users.

The ques­tion of whether inter­net access should be free or restrict­ed has impli­ca­tions beyond users’ bank accounts, how­ev­er. Repeal­ing net neu­tral­i­ty would essen­tial­ly con­vert the expe­ri­ence of using the inter­net — now open and inter­ac­tive — into that of tele­vi­sion: closed, pas­sive and bureau­crat­ic. Big web­sites would become the dig­i­tal equiv­a­lent of the big cable networks.

Right now, ISPs are only able to offer inter­net access. If Chair­man Pai’s pro­pos­al is imple­ment­ed, how­ev­er, they’ll be able to offer spe­cial­ized pack­ages in con­tent, speed and data management.

That might sound rel­a­tive­ly innocu­ous, but it isn’t. It means ISPs would be able to offer a news pack­age that excludes par­tic­u­lar news web­sites (such as InThe​se​Times​.com). Or, even with­out fol­low­ing the pack­ag­ing mod­el, it means they can slow down, or block, web­sites they pre­fer their cus­tomers don’t visit.

Pri­or to the 2015 rules, ISPs were already doing the lat­ter. For instance, Com­cast slowed down peer-to-peer file shar­ing of what it believed was copy­right­ed mate­r­i­al, and Ver­i­zon blocked its cus­tomers from using the wal­let” apps of its competitors.

The net neu­tral­i­ty bat­tle has also pit­ted ISPs against big data-users such as Google, Net­flix and Spo­ti­fy — com­pa­nies that see an over­turn of the 2015 rules as a threat to their bot­tom lines.

While Google has boast­ed about the impor­tance of an open inter­net,” what the company’s exec­u­tives are real­ly con­cerned about is the extor­tionary fees ISPs could charge them if the FCC’s pro­pos­al goes through. That’s why Google lob­bied for the Title II reg­u­la­tions on ISPs, and why the com­pa­ny has been rush­ing expan­sion of its own inter­net ser­vice — Google Fiber — which ISPs have tried using local gov­ern­ments to block.

These com­pa­nies are of course look­ing out for their investors and stock­hold­ers, not aver­age inter­net users. But this doesn’t change the fact that if net neu­tral­i­ty is over­turned, the inter­net will become more expen­sive and less free for everyone.

The inter­net already has enough gate­keep­ers — ISPs don’t need to be added to the list. Web hosts can already sus­pend web­site domains. Face­book and Google already decide not only what peo­ple see online, but in what con­text they see it. The dig­i­tal econ­o­my doesn’t need more cen­sor­ship, inequal­i­ty and sur­veil­lance. There’s plen­ty of that already.

Mark Dun­bar is a free­lance writer based in Indi­anapo­lis. He can be reached by email at mark.​dunbar1988@​gmail.​com or on Twit­ter at @Mark1Dunbar.
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