Net Neutrality Needs An Alternate Narrative

Last week Democrats in the House voted to reinstate net neutrality regulations adopted by the Federal Communications Commission in 2015. The vote is likely to be futile, however, because President Trump has signaled that he’ll veto the legislation even if it manages to pass in the Senate. While both Democrats and Republicans support net neutrality principles, there is little prospect of a legislative resolution in the current environment. That’s unlikely to change without a more honest and open discussion in the halls of Congress and the media.

Journalist Matt Taibbi’s new book, Hate Inc., which posits that we’ve been “herded into separate demographic pens” on the “spectrum of permissible thought,” offers a convincing explanation for the parties’ apparently irreconcilable split on net neutrality legislation. Advocacy groups have largely succeeded in narrowing the range of permissible net neutrality argument to a binary choice — whether or not to reinstate a 2015 (Democratic) party-line vote for “Title II” regulation at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) — a choice that demands total victory for one side and total defeat for the other. When neither option is acceptable to both parties, stalemate is the expected result.

Progress toward a lasting solution would require a change in the prevailing narrative about what is needed for “strong” net neutrality regulation, but as Mr. Taibbi notes, “the scripts in societies like ours rarely change.” Anyone who attempts to stray too far outside the “permitted mental parameters” of the binary choice is immediately hit with “flak” from advocacy groups on both sides of the ideological divide.

“As it turns out, there is a utility in keeping us divided,” writes Mr. Taibbi. “Fake controversies of increasing absurdity” keep “audiences from seeing larger problems.” With respect to the internet, other problems — like the systematic abuse of consumer privacy rights and the manipulation of democratic elections — are considerably larger and far more pressing than the narrow slice of issues the FCC’s net neutrality regulations ostensibly addressed. Last Monday, the British Government issued a report detailing the “widespread” and “ongoing” harms caused by unaccountable internet platforms that the Democrat’s net neutrality regulations wouldn’t address. A day later, journalist Marguerite Reardon at CNET noted that, “for most people, things haven’t really changed” since the FCC’s net neutrality regulations were repealed.

Consider that the Cambridge Analytica scandal and Russian efforts to manipulate the 2016 presidential election both occurred while the FCC’s 2015 regulations were in effect. Is that the internet Democrats really want to save?

The Democrat’s definition of “net neutrality” cannot meet the lofty expectations created by those words or the unmitigated praise they so often receive in the press. It is flatly untrue that the FCC’s 2015 net neutrality regulations “ensured” or “guarantee[d]” internet users would have equal and open access to all online services and content, as many mainstream media outlets reported last week. It is an indisputable fact that the FCC’s 2015 net neutrality regulations did not stop dominant internet platforms from restricting access to particular internet services and content, because the regulations did not apply to all internet platforms that have the incentive and ability to act as gatekeepers.

The internet is like a canal with multiple locks, any one of which can be used to deny access to websites and services that are upstream from an end user. If the law required that only one lock on the Panama Canal be kept open to all shipping, its other locks could still be used to block any particular ship from passing through. Smartphones and search engines are metaphorical locks on the internet canal; and each has been used to discriminate against content and services on the web.

Several antitrust authorities (e.g., Europe and India) have found that Google (a/k/a Alphabet) abused its power over these locks by discriminating against competitive services and denying equal access to internet users. Due primarily to historical limitations on the FCC’s legal authority, however, the agency’s 2015 net neutrality regulations did not apply to Google’s abuse of its smartphone and search engine platforms. The FCC’s regulations applied only to “broadband internet access services” provided by “internet service providers” (a/k/a ISPs). Other locks on the internet canal could still be, and actually were, used to deny equal and open access to internet users.

This plain truth has been trampled by advocates who repeatedly assert that the FCC’s 2015 regulations are the only viable path to “strong” net neutrality. Whenever someone points out that a truly strong approach to net neutrality regulation would prohibit any platform company from using any type of internet lock to control access to content and services, the same advocates complain that person is “changing the subject.”

It isn’t changing the subject to be concerned about the (quite literal) fact that internet platforms have the same ability and incentive as ISPs to deny access to internet content and services. Users either have equal access to internet content or they don’t. When users are denied access to particular content, they don’t care which internet lock was used against them. Neither should the law.

Unfortunately, this sort of flak has proven to be a successful means of choreographing the debate. Advocates for the FCC’s 2015 regulations want to shut down rabble rousers (like me) who advocate for the application of net neutrality regulation to all internet companies equally, because an honest and open debate about the various types of internet locks and who controls them would expose the FCC’s 2015 regulations for what they were: biased laws that let monopolistic internet platforms have their cake (by regulating their potential rivals) and eat it too (by exempting their own monopoly platforms from those regulations).

Keeping the one-sided net neutrality debate going is a win for big tech platforms even without a regulatory response. The debate provides enough threat of regulation to make ISPs think twice about trying new business models that could be spun as net neutrality offenses. And while ISPs fret, big tech companies fill the voids with their own service offerings, many of which actually do violate net neutrality principles. But big tech companies get away with it, because they’ve established a narrative that exempts themselves from serious net neutrality scrutiny.

The strategy has already paid off. You wouldn’t know it from reading a typical article about net neutrality, but the center of power over internet content has shifted decisively from ISPs to big tech platforms since the debate began. The net neutrality debate still assumes that ISPs are the only potential threat to content, “a mental model of the internet that hasn’t been accurate for more than a decade,” wrote Wired journalist Robert McMillan in 2014. Before reaching an end user, most internet content and services are now filtered through one or more intermediary platforms controlled by a single company — Google — including its dominant smartphone, search engine, web browser, web analytics, and online advertising platforms.

Google’s influence over what users access on the internet doesn’t end at the technical edge of its platforms. According to Axios reporter Mike Allen, “Google is a gigantic octopus, with sprawling, growing tentacles reaching deep into every nook and crevice of media companies” themselves. Reporters use Google search to “write about everything;” they optimize their websites “so every story shows up on Google search;” they “hope and wait for [their] stories to also show up on Google Newsstand, Google News or in Google Chrome suggestions;” they “sell ads to Google;” and the list goes on. “The media is obsessed with Facebook — but is exponentially more dependent on Google,” writes Mr. Allen, who leaves it to the reader to ponder the correlation.

The current net neutrality debate has become another example of the fake controversies Mr. Taibbi laments in his new book Hate, Inc. While everyone else is kept busy arguing about regulation of ISPs, Google keeps tightening its grip on internet content and online journalism.