Today’s Misdirected Day of Action
Costing the American people the chance to find a reasonable solution to the open internet debate is anything but a day of “action”
Today was the long anticipated “Day of Action.” The sponsors wanted the public to believe that that Internet is at grave risk because the FCC is re-examining its net neutrality rules. A typically hyperbolic recent op-ed declared “FCC Chairman wants to hand the Internet over to big corporations.” This is a rich accusation given that the Internet is already in the hands of the biggest corporations in world — the very ones who are cynically promoting the “Day of Action.” Google, Facebook and Amazon thoroughly dominate nearly every facet of today’s Internet. From their dominant perch, they call on the government to heavily regulate internet access providers in the name of preserving internet neutrality, yet it is they who most egregiously profit from decidedly non-neutral practices.
The European Union just fined Google $2.7 billion for lack of neutrality in its search results, favoring its own shopping links and demoting those of competitors. Google and Facebook alone captured 99 percent of all growth in internet advertising last year and use that dominance to extract tolls from other companies. Facebook thoroughly dominates news today, and uses its non-transparent algorithms to rank stories or prioritize articles in its feed. They have contributed to the spread of fake news and have been caught blocking news content based on political viewpoints. Amazon is rapidly eating up the entire retail sector, and the Washington Post reports the company patented a technology to block their customers from comparison shopping in its retail stores. These companies do not behave like Switzerland, they act as overlords.
Companies as varied as news organizations, music services, travel sites and video streaming start-ups know that they must go through these gatekeeping digital platforms to have any chance of survival, and they must pay and play by their rules. Prioritizing for profit, blocking disfavored content or users, collecting and selling sensitive personal data, paving fast lanes and offering no transparency on how it is all done is a typical day in the Internet neighborhood. Twitter brazenly demonstrated the hypocrisy of its support for net neutrality principles when it blocked Twitter access for several hours to an AT&T blog expressing its commitment to net neutrality.
The duplicity of big tech’s call to action is revealed by asking are they willing to subject themselves to government regulation to ensure the internet is neutral rather than skewed in favor of their pocketbooks. Privacy regulations are great when the FCC is going to impose them on ISPs, but when Congress proposes taking those same restrictions and applying them equally to the tech giants they muster all their weight to oppose them. How about search neutrality? How about liability for promoting piracy, allowing fake news or blocking users for their political views? The fact that the answer is a loud no, lays bare the fact that today’s protest is much less about consumers and a lot more about preserving an unobstructed path to continued dominance of the Internet by a handful of global giants.
Tech activists will quickly retort that this is not about the big guys, but about the next little start-up, laboring in a garage to become the next big guy. This romantic narrative is firmly rooted in internet lore, but is highly questionable today. Tech giants now vacuum up or squash most start-ups with a promising idea or one that might threaten their dominance. Google has acquired over 200 companies. Facebook sucked up Instagram and WhatsApp and unsuccessfully approached Snapchat. The internet has become remarkably stable — orbiting around the same few dominant players — and it’s been a long time since we have seen the entry of a rival that even remotely challenges one of them.
Polls show most Americans have little awareness of the net neutrality issue. Why should they? Consumers have not faced any meaningful blocking or interference with their internet access to the web — either in the decades-long period without net neutrality rules, or the brief period with them. No matter what the FCC does, consumers will not see any change in the internet they have come to know. ISPs have long digested and accepted the consumer preference for an open internet, and have found a sound and profitable business model that relies on it.
The images of slow loading web pages that tech activists are plastering around the internet are a false prophecy — a concerted effort to creatively paint a scary picture, with no basis in fact, to frighten users into advancing their commercial interests. ISPs have consistently increased speeds for decades and have announced even more dramatic speed increases in the coming years. The only thing that will slow down one’s internet experience is if overregulation robs internet builders of the incentives to pour more investment into the network. It is preposterous to think that there is a profitable and winning business strategy for ISPs to intentionally degrade their customers’ internet experiences. Our companies have consistently and repeatedly pledged strong support for net neutrality rules and the proponents of internet regulation strain to find any substantial evidence that ISP’s want to block websites, or create slow lanes.
More and more we see tech giants using the playbook of hypocrisy in Washington. They profess some high moral ideal, demand Washington regulate other sectors to protect those ideals, but insist they should not be subject to the same restrictions. Today, we hear moralistic fealty to the idea of a neutral web, but a complete unwillingness to practice what is preached — or more to the point, to be regulated in a manner similar to that which they urge for others.
Net neutrality has become a packaged political controversy that attracts politicians and activists who stand to benefit from it. Today’s protest is an orchestrated show of force to demonstrate that the public supports an open Internet. But, few in Washington need convincing that an open internet is valuable and should be protected, including ISPs. The only path to ending this old controversy is for legislators to codify net neutrality protections into new bipartisan legislation that applies fairly to all companies in the internet ecosystem, and protects both the open internet and the incentives to invest.
Today’s protest will do little to advance this issue if it causes legislators to harden around hyper-partisan positions that will prevent the development of sound policy. Costing the American people the chance to find a reasonable solution to the open internet debate is anything but a day of “action.”