Net Neutrality Was Never Enough

After a meeting voting to end net neutrality, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai smiles while listening to a question from a reporter, Thursday, Dec. 14, 2017.

After a meeting voting to end net neutrality, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai smiles while listening to a question from a reporter, Thursday, Dec. 14, 2017. Jacquelyn Martin/AP

The internet is as much the enemy as it is the hero of contemporary life.

Ajit Pai, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, opens a bag of Cheetos with his teeth, dumps them onto a hipster food-court lunch bowl, and slathers it in Sriracha sauce. He snaps a pic for social media.

It’s a scene from a video, “Seven Things You Can Still Do on the Internet After Net Neutrality,” shot by the conservative outlet The Daily Caller and published Wednesday, the day before the Federal Communications Commission voted to gut rules to treat internet traffic equally. Besides “’gramming your food,” Pai also assures The Daily Caller’s readers they will still be able to take selfies, binge watch Game of Thrones, cosplay as a Jedi, and do the Harlem shake.

Net-neutrality proponents have lambasted the video, and with good reason. A federal appointee charged for stewardship of public communications infrastructure comes off as insolent.

Even so, there’s something undeniably true about the video, which has only been amplified by reactions to the FCC’s vote: The internet that net neutrality might protect is also a petri dish of the pettiness and derision Pai acts out in the video. In addition to being a public good that ought to be regulated, the internet is also an amplifier of panic, malice, and intemperance. Like it or not, those vices helped get the nation into the political moil it currently faces, from internet policy to immigration to taxation to health care—as well as to the validity of elections themselves.

The most important step for the future of the internet, for citizens, politicians, and corporations alike, is to calm down, research, and debate its future. But the internet’s nature might make that impossible.

* * *

As had been expected, the FCC voted Dec. 14 to roll back the Obama-era Open Internet Order, which treated broadband internet service providers—Comcast, Verizon, Time Warner, and their ilk—as common carriers under Title II of the Communications Act. Those protections required ISPs to treat internet traffic equally, preventing them from blocking or otherwise interfering with access to specific websites, apps, or other resources. Under the new rules, dubbed “Restoring Internet Freedom” by the FCC, ISPs would have to disclose any steps they take to limit or sell special access.

The FCC voted in favor of repeal despite widespread support of net neutrality among the American public—and despite the fact that public comment for the new policy appears to have been compromised by millions of fraudulent entries.

Those factors will likely come up in legal challenges to the repeal, which are already mounting. The new rules won’t take effect for at least several months. State attorneys general have begun filing lawsuits. And Congress could adopt legislation that would codify net neutrality into law, a move that activists are encouraging citizens to appeal for. The Democratic senator Ed Markey announced plans for legislation to reverse the FCC’s repeal, and given the bipartisan support for net neutrality among the electorate, it’s possible that such a bill could find support across the aisle.

Possible, but hardly guaranteed. A letter to the FCC from the House Committee on Energy and Commerce supporting the FCC’s action was signed by 107 Republican members of Congress. Of those, Motherboard reported that 84 have taken telco-industry contributions.

Even though the FCC’s action—a 3–2 vote along party lines—has been anticipated since the proposal’s announcement just before Thanksgiving, public response to the rollback was severe. On Twitter, a woman posted a video of her 11-year-old sister’s school lunch table shouting “Ajit Pai is a loser.” A Missouri man created a $500,000 crowd-funding campaign (since taken down) to “deport Ajit Pai”—a dense morsel of consumer rights mixed with xenophobia (Pai is Indian American) that typifies the ethos of the internet.

The media’s response has been similarly drastic. Jimmy Kimmel weighed in, calling Pai a “jackhole” who wants to line the pockets of big telco at the cost of the public. Briefly, CNN ran the headline, “End of the Internet as We Know It.”

One such fear, widely held by net-neutrality proponents, is that ISPs might slice up internet service into tiers, as they have done for cable television. Stoking this fear, @therealbanksy, the Twitter account that ostensibly represents the anonymous British artist Banksy, posted a warning: “If you don't want to pay extra for your favorite sites you need to be supporting #NetNeutrality.” Along with it, some hypothetical fees: Twitter: $14.99/month; Netflix: $9.99/movie; Google: $1.99/search. As I write this, it has been retweeted 162,000 times. @therealbanksy, whose profile reads “fan account,” aptly represents the internet itself: billions of people, who might also be dogs, criminals, children, or senators, all jockeying for a shred of one another’s attention at all costs.

Even the FCC hearing itself was disrupted by the internet’s feral anxiety about itself. While details are still uncertain, the meeting was briefly interrupted due to a security threat. After bomb-sniffing dogs cleared the area, the vote resumed. “The left’s outcry at Mr. Pai ‘killing’ internet freedom,” the conservative Wall Street Journal editorial board wrote in response, “has been so overwrought that the FCC meeting room had to be cleared Thursday for a security threat.”

Pai’s Daily Caller video inspired similar indignation. The video appears to feature a cameo by an apologist for Pizzagate, the false conspiracy theory about a Democratic child sex trafficking ring run from a Washington, D.C. pizza joint. The net-neutrality opposition has latched onto this connection, using Pai’s association with the publication as an indictment of his position on common carriage.

The internet has amplified excess, making any one extreme act or idea require an even more extreme response. An arms race for profligacy.

* * *

In truth, nobody yet knows how the net-neutrality rollback will affect anyone—consumers, telcos, big tech, or start-ups. Internet zealots warn of widespread blocking and throttling, not to mention pay-for-play fast lanes that might benefit big companies like Netflix and Google and prevent upstarts from enjoying innovation and growth. ISPs, aware of how hot the issue is, will likely take no immediate action.

When they do, it will probably come in a form invisible to consumers anyway. Pay-for-play deals with big providers might make some services load faster and others slower. Small delays can be fatal for adoption and continued use, and the costs of operating a new business in such an environment might make some start-ups inviable.

As I’ve argued before, progressive advocacy for net neutrality can’t credibly claim to be acting on behalf of consumers and small businesses when venture-backed technology start-ups are the main beneficiary. The dissenting statements of both Democratic FCC commissioners, Mignon Clyburn and Jessica Rosenworcel, give special mention to the “innovators” who might be harmed by dismantling net neutrality: big tech companies that might have to pay tariffs to telcos, or small tech companies that might struggle to do so. Bandwidth-heavy services would be most impacted—the “next Netflix,” as advocates often name it—but it’s not clear that the online-video market hasn’t been taken over by incumbents anyway, like search and social networking have.

Pai has justified the rollback on the grounds that the existing guidance overregulated the telecommunications sector, which operated without formal net-neutrality rules until the Open Internet Order was adopted in 2015. Since then, Pai insists, telco investment in broadband infrastructure has declined. Spurring more and better access, the FCC has decided, is more important than regulating broadband as common carriage.

The 2015 adoption of the Open Internet Order offered leverage to big tech companies like Google (now Alphabet), who might have pressed further into the broadband-service space. After all, some 50 million U.S. homes have only one choice for broadband service, driving service costs up. But instead, in 2016, Alphabet curbed expansion of its residential fiber network, which it began building in 2010. Rolling out fiber is expensive, complicated, and breeds dissatisfaction. Unlike search or docs, services that run in the cloud, fiber has to be installed and maintained in the physical world. In Atlanta, where I live, Google fiber installation caused numerous gas-line breaks, along with less-easily trackable disputes with property owners over digging and repair.

Even once installed, the switching cost of moving from a provider like Comcast to Google is high; people hate waiting for service technicians. It’s just more profitable to sell digital ads against searches and videos that other people make. Google’s net profits in Q3 2017 alone totaled $6.7 billion.

This situation in mind, it’s at least possible that terror over the apparent end of net neutrality might spur broadband investment and competition, especially if providers commit to equal treatment. It’s also possible that small-scale, start-up innovation in broadband access is impossible in America absent a threat to the internet. In the wake of the FCC’s vote, Vice announced plans to create a fiber-backed mesh network for the Brooklyn neighborhood where its offices are located. Such experiments are not new, but it’s unusual for a media company to ponder entering the ISP business. Nothing was stopping Vice from taking such a step before net neutrality reached the precipice—except, perhaps, a credible business justification for doing so, even if just as a branding exercise.

Other, better solutions to broadband competition exist. One is local-loop unbundling, a policy that requires telcos to share last-mile connections with competitors. It’s one of the reasons that broadband is so much cheaper in Europe than it is in the United States. The 1996 Telecommunication Act included an unbundling provision, requiring providers to offer access to their networks at “reasonable” cost when “technically feasible.” The policy spurred competition in DSL, but fiber was too hypothetical at the time, and it wasn’t covered in the act. Even so, small competitors had trouble getting central access for service provisioning once they had last-mile access. The big telcos had no trouble finding ways to argue against technical feasibility.

The problem with regulatory apparatuses like local-loop unbundling is that they are boring. Nobody wants to think about the complicated, messy infrastructure that actually makes it possible for irascible tweets to make it from the phones in people’s hands to the servers on which they are stored. It’s much simpler and more comforting to imagine the internet as the “cloud” of its marketers—an ethereal force that surrounds you and me and everyone. One that, like air or water, sates a basic need of human life.

* * *

In her dissent—a “eulogy,” she even calls it—Rosenworcel, the FCC commissioner, writes, “the future of the internet is the future of everything. That is because there is nothing in our commercial, social, and civic lives that has been untouched by its influence or unmoved by its power.”

This sentiment is both true and terrifying. The idea that a global data network would have so much power and influence should give everyone pause. Not only because it implies that so much of public and private life is conducted by means of that infrastructure. But also because it inspires people—and businesses, and government agencies, and elected officials themselves—to press toward the worst extremes of their character. It’s undeniable that modern society relies on the internet. Less often discussed are the impacts of such a dependence. Until they reach a breaking point, like the compromise of democracy or the mass exposure of personal information.

“Internet access became the dial tone of the digital age,” Rosenworcel’s dissent continues. She understates matters. Instead, it has become this era’s heartbeat. Data has become the blood that courses through the veins of ordinary life. This is why everyone in the debate is so passionate. But it’s also worth remembering that this is just a metaphor. The world is still out there, underneath and above all the fiber-optic lines that would take it online.

When it comes to net neutrality, supporting or opposing it is no longer sufficient. Killing net neutrality probably won’t make things better, but keeping it without any other substantive changes will ensure things get worse—instead of civics, only mania will remain. The internet is as much the enemy as it is the hero of contemporary life. It is not the free and open internet that must be eulogized, but the public’s blindness to its consequences.