The fight’s begun! Last week, Ajit Pai’s Federal Communications Commission officially launched its “repeal and replace” plan for net neutrality. This principle identifies the level playing field for all content on the internet. You have a couple of months to preserve this principle from corporate assault.
Ajit Pai became FCC chair in January, firmly determined to gut real net neutrality, but with a smiling face. Pai has been giving interviews to a variety of media outlets. His pitch is something like this:
- Everybody in the universe loves the free and open Internet.
- The telecommunications companies that offer you and I our Internet connections hate the very idea of offering fast lanes to some content providers, and slow lanes for the rest of us.
- The 2015 rules (known as the Open Internet Order) are deeply onerous, solve a nonexistent problem, and prevent these telecom giants from building better broadband connections that other industrialized countries take for granted.
Sadly, he leaves out the petty little detail that the telecoms have been busy, before and since the Open Internet Order was ratified, buying content companies.
John Oliver strikes again
Perhaps the first time you heard anything about net neutrality was from John Oliver, the very funny host of HBO’s Last Week Tonight. Three years ago, when the chair of the US Federal Communications Commission was first proposing a corporate-friendly version of net neutrality, Oliver devoted one of his first post-Daily Show broadcasts to explaining what net neutrality was, why it was important, and how the proposed FCC rules were inadequate to the challenge. He asked his viewers to make their opinions known to the FCC online. The response crashed the agency’s servers.
About a year, and four million comments, later, the FCC passed strong net neutrality rules on a party line vote. The power of popular pressure on display was absolutely amazing.
The thing is, corporations don’t take defeat well. if they lose a fight, it’s only temporary. It may take time, but they will keep coming as often as necessary. Which brings us to the current situation.
The response: “Really, a comic?”
On Sunday, May 7, Last Week Tonight took up net neutrality again, with a similar result. The presumably beefed-up FCC servers crashed again under the weight of people’s fury. FCC staff even claimed the FCC was under attack by cyber-criminals!
In addition, conservative opponents of real net neutrality were ready for Oliver this time around.
Among other conservative, corporate pundits, Scott Cleland, a former official of the George H. W. Bush administration, wrote that “HBO’s John Oliver needs a Net Neutrality reality check” at TheHill .com on May 8:
“Is net neutrality policy the joke here? Or is the joke really that net neutrality activists think late night comedy is the most effective way for them to influence the FCC on public policy?”
His argument boils down to this: Everything’s changed since Oliver’s first rant. Wheeler could be pressured. Obama could be pressured. Pai already demonstrated that he’s not changing his mind. Trump will stand by Pai. Congress already overturned the privacy rules, and not a single REpublican member of Congress backs net neutrality. And supporters just trot out a comedian (again)?
In this world, the only effective pressure comes from the tech oligarchs.
If there is a political wildcard here, it is the handful of Internet networks that individually or together command that much potential political power. Among them are Google-Android-YouTube-Cloud; Facebook-Messenger-Instagram; Amazon-Prime-AWS; and Microsoft-Azure-Linked-in.
These four unregulated companies are worth $2 trillion, have unmatched media influence, and command dominant market shares in multiple communications-related markets.
Remember that Cleland’s audience at TheHill.com are the lobbyists, bureaucrats and others who need to know how the winds are blowing in DC. The mindset there is that the only actors that matter are the corporate influence-buyers. And most of the time, that is the reality. Cleland wants to tell the rest of us that this net neutrality thing is just a fight among billionaires, that it doesn’t matter who wins, and you and I shouldn’t waste time arguing about it.
But we still live in a democracy, for now at least. While I’m really glad that John Oliver is on our side, he is not our savior; we are the leaders we’ve been looking for. We need to apply a variety of tactics, but make both the FCC and the Congress bend to our will.
Is the fight for net neutrality hopeless? What can ordinary people do to preserve democracy on the internet? Your thoughts — and proposals — are appreciated here. In the meantime, let’s use John Oliver’s link to tell the FCC what we think: