In response to last month's controversial decision by the FCC to repeal net neutrality protections put in place by the Obama administration, proponents of the now repealed rule have begun pursuing alternative avenues to preserving the principle that ISPs should treat all data flowing through their networks equally. As with other Obama-era policies ripped up by the Trump administration (e.g. the Paris Climate Accord), states and local lawmakers have stepped into this policy vacuum, including the DC city commission, which last week held hearings on a proposed resolution opposing the federal government's net neutrality repeal.
Testifying in support of the proposal (titled DC PR220691 -- Sense of the Council Opposing the Repeal of Net Neutrality Rules Resolution of 2017) was Associate Professor and chair of AU's Communication Studies division Dr. Aram Sinnreich, who outlined some of the adverse implications involved in repealing net neutrality.
"It is my opinion that the FCC's so-called "Restoring Internet Freedom" plan was enacted in bad faith," explained Dr. Sinnreich, adding "its results will be to diminish and narrow the public sphere, infringe upon free speech, limit access to knowledge, disincentivize competition and innovation, exacerbate social divides, and undermine privacy for political dissidents and culturally marginalized communities."
Dr. Sinnreich's testimony continues:
The bad faith of the FCC Republican majority is clear; as Democratic Commissioner Rosenworcel herself observed, the repeal order didn’t cite a single one of tens of millions of consumer comments in favor of maintaining net neutrality, nor did it acknowledge that 2 million fraudulent public comments against net neutrality were submitted using stolen American consumer identities, and at least half a million were submitted from Russian IP addresses, suggesting hostile foreign action against American sovereignty and free speech.
Furthermore, the FCC’s rationale for repealing net neutrality was ludicrous to the point of dereliction of duty. The claims that net neutrality regulations impinged upon infrastructure investment and profitability fly in the face of the fact that core network spending grew faster in 2016 (after the FCC’s Open internet Order) than in any other year of this century, and in the face of the massive revenues reaped by public companies like Verizon ($126 billion) and AT&T ($164 billion) during that same year.
Furthermore, FCC Chairman Pai’s claim that the FCC’s 2015 Open Internet Order was an act of regulatory overreach that reversed decades of unregulated broadband and wireless business practices is equally untruthful. As Harold Feld of consumer advocacy group Public Knowledge has documented, in excruciating detail, the default presumption has always been that traditional common carriage rules governing telephone infrastructure applied equally to broadband service. Only after broadband infrastructure evolved into a separate network than the telephone infrastructure did the major ISPs begin their campaign of lobbying, public relations and lawsuits to reverse this regulatory presumption, and only with the FCC’s December 2017 order were their dreams of deregulation finally realized.
The costs of losing net neutrality, to American business, culture, and politics, cannot be overstated. First of all, it will significantly raise the costs for startups and innovators to compete with established titans in media and communications. The promise of the internet, since its first public adoption in the 1980s, has been that its low cost to entry and an even playing field challenged the hierarchical grip over information dissemination baked into our broadcasting and mass media infrastructures. This shared access to the means of production and dissemination is precisely what allowed startups like Amazon, Facebook, Google, YouTube, Netflix, Wikipedia and Apple to become genre-defining product and service providers with revolutionary new consumer offerings, despite fierce opposition and competition from entrenched market titans like the major broadcast networks, movie studios, news conglomerates, cable companies, and brick-and-mortar retail chains.
Now that the FCC has enabled broadband and wireless providers to charge content and service providers extra fees for access to potential consumers, the cost of market entry and the cost of growth will both be much higher, and this will create a severe economic disincentive for startups and innovators. In essence, it fixes today’s winners in place for perpetuity and creates conditions that will prevent the next Amazon, Google or Wikipedia from emerging. Furthermore, because many of the broadband infrastructure companies are vertically integrated and own their own content producers and distributors (for instance, Comcast owns NBC/Universal, and Verizon owns AOL and Yahoo), the end of net neutrality creates an incentive for the ISPs to privilege their own, in-house content and service providers over competitors.
The higher costs of business for the established titans will also mean higher costs for consumers. In order to maintain their profit margins and pay the added fee to participate in ISPs’ “fast lanes,” The Apples, Netflixes, and Amazons of the world will have to pad their existing fees and prices. Advertising-driven platforms like YouTube will either have to show more ads, collect more consumer data to increase the value of their ads, or retreat behind a paywall — all of which would negatively impact consumers, as well.
The inevitable result of fewer information providers and conduits, and higher costs for end users, will be to diminish the public sphere, by limiting the number and variety of voices that can participate in producing, selecting and distributing professional content such as news, opinion, and entertainment, by undermining the profit model for “consumer-generated content,” and by making internet access or access to content and services prohibitively expensive for those who live in a state of economic precarity.
An additional cost of repealing net neutrality will be the diminished privacy of internet users. I have already cited the greater incentive for internet companies to collect intimate data about consumers’ lives and identities to fuel the online advertising industry. In conjunction with another recent FCC rule change enabling ISPs to collect and sell these data, this creates market conditions in which there will be a race to build detailed profiles of every consumer, from interpersonal communications to health and transactional records to location history, and to sell those data to the highest bidders. Furthermore, because ISPs are now in competition for consumer data, they will be able to use their discriminatory powers to throttle or censor encrypted consumer data, such as VPN and Tor traffic, because such traffic does not yield information about the consumer. This, in turn, will harm the free speech powers of those who need it most — political dissidents and marginalized community members — who rely upon the ability to communicate, organize, and seek vital information without revealing their political views and cultural identities to their neighbors, employers, or state institutions.
Although this list of consequences may seem extensive, it is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg. The reversal of net neutrality represents nothing less than the wholesale restructuring of the American public sphere and market infrastructure and has profound consequences for the shape of our democracy and economy, which will be felt deeply here in Washington, DC, around the country, and around the world. For these reasons, I support the Council’s resolution and urge it to continue to exercise its legislative power and public platform to rein in the anticompetitive, undemocratic efforts of the communications conglomerates and to advocate and regulate on behalf of a free and open internet.
Dr. Aram Sinnreich
Chair, Communication Studies