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Net neutrality repealed

Kevin Taghabon

December 27, 2017

Since its inception the internet has been touted as a tool with radical democratic potential. As with most technology, utopian ideals quickly sour when exposed to mendacious capitalists seeking profits over the public good. Despite the broken promise that the internet would educate all and liberate humanity, there are countless ways that people have used the web as part of movements towards justice. Net neutrality has been integral in using the internet towards emancipatory ends, and it has just been struck down.

From net neutrality to two-tiered or worse

Net neutrality dictates that access to the internet should be neutral and non-discriminatory. You’re either online, or you’re not. Once someone is on the internet, they can freely connect to any website they wish without throttling or censorship from Internet Service Providers (ISPs), content hosts, or creators. Imagine a neutrality principle for cable: turn on the television, and you have access to every channel on the planet. This ship sailed long ago for television, and it’s about to be sunk for the web.

The Republican-majority Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted on December 14th 3-2 along party lines to repeal net neutrality rules that had been enshrined by the previous administration. ISPs in the US now have the right to set up tiered internet packages. ISPs have every incentive, and now the legal authority, to prioritize customers with more money and turn the internet into the nightmare of cable packages all over again.

This is already a reality in countries like Spain and Portugal. Portuguese telecom companies provide packages that include certain apps, but not others. Users who wish to access specific apps not included need to pay a premium. In Silicon Valley language, this suffocates innovation and decreases competition. Most tech giants (Google, Facebook, Twitter) were against the net neutrality repeal, yet are the institutions that have enough capital to bribe ISPs into including their content and sites. Startups and DIY-esque apps can only flourish if the creators and consumers don’t have to fork over more money to try unestablished platforms.

As this is uncharted territory, it remains to be seen how each company will react. ISPs have little reason not to price gouge people accustomed to universal access. The pervasive trend of “microtransactions” - paying a few dollars here and there to win  - is already a destructive force in the video game industry. The companies who do it most (EA, Activision) are the giants.

There is every reason for say, Disney, to push “premium” placement and streaming of their movies on Netflix. Netflix could transfer this cost onto consumers who will pay for Star Wars no matter what, or ask Disney to pay for this privilege. This would eventually bury content created by teams without mountains of cash. Either way, consumers lose. This problem will only be accelerated for conglomerates like Comcast, who own production (NBC-Universal, Time Warner) and distribution (Comcast ISP) channels and can put their thumbs on many scales. Comcast has already deleted their big net neutrality promise from their site.

Telecom cronies

Unlike some of the polished airheads and hatchet men that float around Trump and make themselves look stately, FCC chairman Ajit Pai is a mess. Pai unmasked the hideous face of the telecom industry in a way that Trump unmasked American society. Pai, a Republican and former Verizon lawyer, was appointed to the FCC by Obama as part of a string of “bipartisan” compromises establishment Democrats love to champion. Trump moved Pai into the chair position where he has completed his mission to unleash ISPs.

Pai’s handling of this issue has been particularly gross. Pai starred in his own fake leaked video before the vote, pretending to be Verizon’s “Manchurian Candidate” for the FCC chairmanship since 2003. Irony is dead: this is who Pai actually is. Pai went on after the repeal vote to release a video on the right wing Daily Caller in which he ridicules the American public by demonstrating you can still play with fidget spinners, NERF toys, and stream Game of Thrones. As if this is the measure of an open, neutral web.

The FCC’s own site had a barely intelligible subsection where people could post comments about the net neutrality repeal vote prior to December 14. The overwhelming majority of Americans, including 73% of Republicans, are against the repeal. This was reflected in the millions of comments, then shunned by the FCC. There were also reports of 500,00 stolen identities being used to submit comments before the vote, including automated comments from the deceased. Pai ignored calls by civil society groups and friends of people whose identities had been stolen to investigate the astroturf bot campaign.

Pai also relied heavily on false and juvenile narratives - like Trump - of “blame Obama”, or “Obama did it, so I hate it.” The FCCs own internal report about net neutrality debunks Pai’s assertion that net neutrality was a heavy handed scheme by Obama to control the internet. In fact, the first net neutrality rules came down during George Bush’s tenure.

There are now Republican senators, led by anti-science telecom puppet Marsha Blackburn, attempting to pass further legislation. They have framed it as a middle ground protection of net neutrality, but the proposed law would in fact further entrench ISP interests and abuse consumers. Comcast being in favour of this is enough of an indictment.

Censorship and its limits

The net neutrality repeal poses larger political problems as well. In 2005 Telus blocked access to a pro-union website during a dispute, and blocked 766 other sites to achieve this. One can imagine corporate bosses salivating at the idea of controlling access to information during labour struggles. A private company censoring hundreds of sites to their millions of customers is just collateral damage.

Movements like Occupy and Standing Rock gained a wider audience with independent media coverage operating under net neutrality. DemocracyNow!, a viewer-supported news service without hordes of money from Lockheed Martin à la NBC, was the first news team on the ground in Standing Rock. Their exposure of bloodied dog noses and violence against peaceful protesters helped the movement grow. A discriminatory ISP can now gaze upon such a situation unfolding and decide there is more money to be made in paywalling the site than leaving access neutral. This is effectively the private power to censor speech.

This will prove to be a huge problem for public schools constantly under attack in the name of austerity. Public schools rely on the web for lessons, information, and educational games in class. 43% of them have only one ISP choice, and little money to cough up. Libraries are in a similar predicament. Others argue that ending net neutrality will limit access to vital health services.

Net neutrality is not an exclusively domestic American issue by a long shot. The American public funded the creation of the internet through ambitious research projects in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It was a mistake for web service to end up in private hands in the first place. But this reality means that the country with the most physical internet infrastructure in its borders is the US. American laws have global effects. While the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) has repeatedly upheld net neutrality provisions in Canada, this does not mean an assault is not coming. Firstly, Bell is currently lobbying for the right to block websites directly, with no judicial oversight.

Governments and corporations hope that by repealing net neutrality they can repeal movements. But the Egyptian revolution shows the limits of internet censorship—where even a brief suspension of all internet access failed to stop the toppling of Mubarak. Egyptian revolutionary Gigi Ibrahim explained, “We would have used any other technology that was available. What really made the revolution possible was the struggle itself rather than these tools.”

The Fight Continues

On December 7, organizers with various civil society organizations like Free Press and the Electronic Frontier Foundation organized hundreds of protests across the US to #StopTheFCC. There are legislative options as well to block the repeal as well. Democratic senate minority leader Chuck Schumer has promised to force a vote in the Senate about the repeal. Even if Democrats overturn the repeal through the Congressional Review Act, Trump can veto it. States attorneys are also banding together in New York, Illinois, Iowa, and a handful of other states to sue the FCC.

These commendable uphill battles should be framed as what they are - a desire to return to the status quo. Much like the healthcare debate in the US, it is possible to use a bad situation (Obamacare repeal efforts) to move the needle further towards justice (universal healthcare). This is publicly owned internet, which some municipalities already offer.

An understanding of the internet as a massive free speech and information platform should inform our conception of where it should go. (It should surprise no one that alt-right “free speech” warriors are mostly against net neutrality). As Kevin Zeese and Margaret Flowers have outlined, a 21st century internet must be universal, open, non-discriminatory, transparent, accountable, and participatory. For this to happen, the public must have full control over the utility. Among many others, Socialist Alternative’s Kshama Sawant, a councilwoman in Seattle, has called for public broadband to be offered to the American people. The fight for public internet, against our own telecom giants, is part of the broader fight to democratize the world, using the internet as one of many tools in the struggle.

Sign the petition demanding that Bell’s ISP censorship powers proposal be struck down

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