So long, internet: it was nice while it lasted

This is how it ends: Ajit Pai, a corrupt former-lobbyist for the telecommunications sector is put in charge of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), with a brief to eliminate net neutrality, not only ignore public opposition to such a move, but also conspire to create fake support for the move… and that’s it: on Friday, the FCC voted to eliminate 2015’s Open Internet Order and the net neutrality protections it established.

The most corrupt US administration for many, many years has decided to ignore the concerns of 83% of Americans and just about anybody who is anybody on the internet, including its creator, and has decided to give priority to the short-term interests of the telecommunications sector. But all is not lost yet: it is still possible that citizen activism could persuade US members of Congress to veto the proposals.

Pai has ignored several members of Congress who demanded an investigation into the conspiracy that used fake identities to send emails supporting his proposals, presumably organized at the behest of the telecommunications companies, so some of them might decide to vote against them if a Congressional Review Act (CRA) is triggered, which, given the Republicans’ reduced majority in Congress could still lead to Pai’s measures being thrown out.

But this is clutching at straws: the tipping point may have passed. From outside the United States, the sensation is one of being a silent witness of a fight in which we can do nothing, in which we know that important things are being played out, but that for too many years too dumb to act.

What will happen if Pai triumphs and his measures are approved by Congress and the Senate? On the face of it, not much. The telecommunications companies don’t want any uproar, and so for a while, the subject will be left alone. Then, we will begin to see increasingly aggressive offers that will include those services people use most. This is already happening, and is legal, even in Europe: offers that exclude WhatsApp, Facebook, or other services. Increasingly, we will see rates for “normal people” that include popular services, the results of agreements between the big players that will consolidate their position. Few people will realize it, but internet innovation will officially have disappeared as such, because the possibility of creating something independently and that can grow based on its value proposition will have gone: without an agreement with a telecoms company, you cannot reach users: instead, these operators will now be able to create their own services and offer them “free” so as to keep out companies that are not under their control or included in their agreements.

The big losers here will not be Netflix, Google, Facebook or Amazon… these giants will be able to pay the exorbitant sums tax the operators will increasingly demand from them, and in fact, they haven’t done much this time to prevent network neutrality from going the way of the dodo. Will Verizon decide to allow its users to use only Yahoo!, whose mortal remains are now part of its empire? It seems unlikely, and would be counterproductive to its interests.

The losers here will be users and companies that, due to their size or principles, will not pay to have their traffic prioritized or included in the operators’ offers. Over time, we will see more and more segmented packages, making it harder and harder to find certain things, either because it will simply not be possible to access them, or they will have been given such a low priority that we will simply forget they existed.

The future looks grim for the internet we have grown used to. We may see some interesting initiatives to return to what it once was, attempts to undo a huge mistake driven by corruption, corporate greed and a failure of democracy.

It’s still too early to know if there’s a solution to all this in the short or medium term, but one thing is for certain: with the end of net neutrality, we see the power of corruption: there are no guarantees, nothing is safe from the voracity of crooked politicians. Things are far worse than even the gloomiest pessimists predicted. The internet was a dream of freedom, and such dreams only last for as long as the sordid nature of human condition allows. So long internet: it was nice while it lasted.


(En español, aquí)