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The End of Net Neutrality?

May 31, 2017
Agit Pai

FCC Chairman Agit Pai with his fetish cup

Perhaps, like me, you thought that the term “net neutrality” sounded vaguely like a good thing, but didn’t really understand what it means or what’s at stake when we don’t have it. Now that I have done a bit of research, I can say with considerable certainty that net neutrality is indeed a very good thing and something that should not be destroyed in this administration’s orgy of ripping up everything accomplished during the Obama years.

This is can get quite complicated, but reduced to its essence, net neutrality means that Internet service providers (ISPs) must treat all content equally and not favor one content provider over another. The rules put in place in 2015 prohibited ISPs from creating “fast lanes” for certain companies (presumably those who paid ISPs to obtain that status), while relegating everyone else to the “slow lanes”. The end of net neutrality potentially could also allow ISPs to discriminate according to content.

If you want a fuller and highly entertaining explanation of what this is all about, you could not do better than to watch this video where HBO’s John Oliver lays it all out.

This has become an urgent issue because the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted on May 18 to rescind the Obama-era regulation and is now accepting comments on whether to implement that decision. The 2015 decision was reached after Internet activists fought an major battle against lobbying by the handful of ISP companies that control internet access for the vast majority of Americans. Since the election, the power balance has been reversed, and now the FCC under chairman Agit Pai is eager to give the big ISPs what they want.

The FCC normally has 5 commissioners, but two of those posts are currently vacant. The Democrats now have one member, versus two for the Republicans. Chairman Agit Pai was nominated by Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell, which would pretty much tell you where he is coming from even if you didn’t know that he was previously a corporate lawyer for Verizon.

Pai (who is actually kind of hot in a slightly geeky, aging-frat-bro sort of way) is an enthusiastic deregulator and uses his considerable charm to make misleading and disingenuous arguments for his positions. His major pitch is that whenever something is regulated, there is less of that something available, and that the “burdensome” net neutrality rules mean that the poor ISPs will be unable to make investments necessary to keep up with growing demand. Obviously, the first premise is false; take electricity, for example, which is among the most heavily regulated industries and for which there is no shortage of investment or supply. Nor is there any real evidence to support the second part of the argument.

The principal counterargument is that the new FCC ruling would mean that the big ISPs could engage in all manner of what John Oliver calls “internet fuckery” and demand payment for favorable treatment. Pai insists that this is purely hypothetical and would never, ever happen, but in fact there have been instances of exactly this sort of thing before the 2015 ruling. According to Ars Technica, “the FCC also received a pro-net neutrality comment from the Internet Association, a trade group whose members include Amazon, Dropbox, eBay, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Netflix, PayPal, Reddit, Spotify, Twitter, and about 30 other Web companies.”

But here’s where what’s happening really gets down in the weeds. The proposed change involves a reclassification of ISPs from Title 2 of the FCC legislation to Title 1. Under Title 2, ISPs are treated as “common carriers” which are closely regulated. Giving them a different classification would make them far less regulatable. And it allows those opposed to net neutrality to dismiss the whole controversy as just a simple little reclassification thing, so you kids just run along and play.

This is happening in the wake of the Republican-controlled congress voting–on straight party line vote–to kill Obama-era regulations on Internet privacy, which would have prohibited Internet providers, such as Comcast and AT&T, from storing and selling customers’ browsing histories without their express consent. The Washington Post recently explained how the congressional Republicans accomplished this under the radar, using the furor over health care legislation as cover. So now, folks, your browsing history is a commodity like everything else, proving once again that there is literally nothing that the Republicans won’t do for their corporate overlords.

The comment period on the net neutrality decision remains open for three months. The FCC has made it as burdensome as possible to actually register a comment, but happily John Oliver’s folks have established a domain name and site (gofccyourself.com) that will take you directly there. Just click here and then on “Express”, and let them know what you think.

 

 

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