Net Neutrality reform has begun, which means that half of the internet is rejoicing that the web will no longer be tyrannized by big government, while the other half despairs that it will now be tyrannized by big corporations. Who’s right?
First, a note to the latter: the web is already subject to the tyranny of big corporations. Their names are Google, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Apple, and Amazon. Together, they have monopolized the public square of the web and destroyed the idea that anyone, no matter how controversial their opinions, can have a voice and build a following.
If you write an app, you Amazon and Google will be your gatekeepers. If you write a book, Amazon will be your gatekeeper. If you make a video, YouTube will be your gatekeeper. If you wish to share your content, Twitter and Facebook will be your gatekeepers. Their speech codes, already more akin to Angela Merkel’s Germany than First Amendment America, grow more stringent by the day.
Furthermore, there is no oversight, no checks and balances, and only threadbare legal recourse to stop these companies from abusing their colossal concentrations of power. Nothing can stop Twitter from suddenly silencing a popular voice, and it has alreadydone so on countless occasions. Nothing can stop Google and Apple from denying an app creator access to the only relevant marketplaces for their products, and they have alreadydone so.
If left-wing Net Neutrality activists are serious about their demands for “content neutrality” and a “free and open web”, then where have they been for the past few years, as control of the web slowly fell into the hands of a few unaccountable companies?
While they’ve largely ignored the blatant watering-down of content neutrality, by companies that once boasted of their commitment to it, they’ve instead focused their attention on Internet Service Providers (ISPs) like Verizon, Comcast and AT&T.
Do ISPs have the potential to become the content police of the internet, absent regulation? Yes they do, and that is a legitimate concern for defenders of internet freedom. It’s not hard to imagine a scenario in which an ISP, pressured by governments, activists and the media, decides to cut off access to a loathed website (say, the Daily Stormer), and in doing so undermine the principle of the open web.
But it’s weird for ISPs to be the primary target of such fears, when it’s online platforms and services (the ones not currently subject to Net Neutrality rules) that did precisely that. Specifically Google and GoDaddy, which cut off domain support for the Stormer, and Cloudflare, which cut off DDoS protection to the site.
ISPs could conceivably do the same thing, but they haven’t yet, outside of authoritarian countries like China and Turkey. Moreover, they are considerably more resistant to the kind of advertiser boycotts that forced YouTube away from content neutrality, because they’re reliant on subscription rather than ad revenue. They also know that if they take any steps towards censorship, well-funded Net Neutrality activists and their allies in Congress will pounce.
That’s why they, unlike Google, Facebook, Twitter, and other platforms that censor with impunity, have made public pledges not to act as gatekeepers.
We do not and will not block, throttle, or discriminate against lawful content. We will continue to make sure that our policies are clear and transparent for consumers, and we will not change our commitment to these principles. pic.twitter.com/YHDADvFqau
— Comcast (@comcast) November 22, 2017
Twitter once boasted of being the “free speech wing of the free speech party,” so perhaps Comcast’s pledge should be taken with a grain of salt. At the same time, ISPs do not have the same incentives as Twitter, which is subject to the whims of thin-skinned celebrities. Or YouTube, which is subject to the whims of thin-skinned advertisers.
ISPs’ main concern in the Net Neutrality debate is the ability to appropriately price their products. Because streaming services like Netflix take up such a huge amount of resources, it is likely that some will want to charge users separately for access to these services. Many scare-o-graphics have been shared on social media explaining what this might look like.
The FCC is getting ready to overturn #NetNeutrality. If they succeed, ISPs will be able to split the net into packages. This means that you will no longer be able to pay one price to access any site you want. pic.twitter.com/vEkNxPmVlu
— Ro Khanna (@RoKhanna) November 21, 2017
If this is the scariest scenario Net Neutrality activists could come up with, they haven’t done a good job. Not least because the combine total of “packages” in the graphic above is actually cheaper than the vaunted “all one price” example.
Secondly, the great “threat” of Net Neutrality reform appears to be that consumers will have more choice. Those who don’t use Netflix may even be able to save money. Even if the overall price for consumers does go up, arguing that the internet is facing an existential threat because you might have to pay an extra $10 for Netflix isn’t a very convincing argument.
The other, more serious point made by Net Neutrality activists is that ISPs could slow down access to sites that they are competing with. This is a danger, not least because some carriers, like Comcast, also run streaming services that are in direct competition with some of the sites (like Netflix) that they also provide access to. What if they decided to speed up users’ connections to their own streaming services, while slowing down connections to competitors? This is a legitimate concern.
At the same time, it sounds more like an antitrust problem to be settled between rival companies in the courts, rather than something that requires permanent FCC oversight. It is also a far cry from kicking sites off the internet, which is what Google, GoDaddy, and Cloudflare have done.
Is there a danger that ISPs could start censoring the net, and prioritizing their own content? Yes there is, but there’s very little sign of it yet, even in countries where ISPs are not subject to Net Neutrality rules. So why do Net Neutrality activists focus so heavily on a hypothetical threat, while ignoring the real one posed by Google, Facebook, and other web behemoths? Perhaps it’s because Google directly funds so many of them.
All of these companies feel threatened by the idea that ISPs could cut off access to their services unless users choose to opt-in. But this is not censorship. Much the reverse, in fact — it would give users more choice.
The real threat to the open internet lies with the same companies who are now begging their users to help them defend Net Neutrality. A few years ago, users might have actually listened to them. But now, it’s impossible to see Google, Facebook, Twitter, and other platforms’ concerns about a “free and open internet” as remotely sincere.
These are the companies that, for increasingly spurious reasons, cut off influential anti-establishment voices from their audiences, hide unwelcome content behind invisible “shadowbans,” ban politically unwelcome apps from their app stores, and starve politically unwelcome content creators of their revenue.
Meanwhile, they continue to preside over the information feeds of tens of millions of people around the world. Google, if they wanted to, could swing an election anywhere in the world just by tweaking its search results. And there is currently no oversight to stop them. Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube could end the influence of politicians, commentators and activists alike — and frequently do so.
If “Net Neutrality” means a commitment to a free and open internet, in which no one’s voice can be suddenly silenced at the whim of a big corporation, then it is clear where the primary danger is. And it’s a little more serious than having to pay $10 extra for Netflix.