In less than 48 hours, the Federal Communications Commission – led by Chairman Ajit Pai – is expected to repeal the 2015 Open Internet Order, championed by then-FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, and supported by Commissioners Mignon Clyburn and Jessica Rosenworcel.
Just as that party-line vote was passed 3-2 in Democrats’ favor, the forthcoming Restoring Internet Freedom Order, which Chairman Pai released prior to Thanksgiving for public review, is also expected to pass on a party-line vote, this time favoring Republicans, with Commissioners Mike O’Rielly and Brendan Carr supporting it.
While the nuances of the net neutrality debate are often foregone in favor of ultra-partisan rhetoric, particularly in an era of increased vitriol during the presidency of America’s 45th Commander in Chief, the expected roll-back of bright line protections raises interesting questions for the Internet. Supporters of the repeal argue that by returning “internet access services” to their pre-2015 “Title I” classification, the doors will be wide open for internet service providers to continue to innovate and invest in the networks upon which so many of our daily online encounters rely. On the flip side, “Title II” net neutrality advocates believe that by rolling back the rules, we’re paving the way for a world in which ISPs can control the content we see and the services we use online.
Perhaps one of the greatest ironies of the current net neutrality debate is that the very harms many people express fear at the hands of ISPs are common practice among large internet companies. Just last week, Variety reported that Google began blocking YouTube from Amazon’s Echo Show and would remove access to the service from Fire TV effective January 1, 2018. The same article noted that Amazon doesn’t carry Chromecast or Google Home products, and prevents Prime content from showing for Google Cast users.
Prior to making headlines for all the wrong reasons, embattled Senator Al Franken, who announced his forthcoming resignation from office last week, proclaimed in November that “Facebook, Google and Amazon, like ISPs, should be neutral in their treatment of the flow of lawful information and commerce on their platform…[and] It doesn’t require an antitrust lawyer to understand that these companies’ dominance in the market of information gives them tremendous power to dictate terms with journalists, publishers, and authors and to control the information available to consumers.” The rise of the Google-Facebook duopoly and the attendant impact on digital advertising revenues is also of increasing concern, as the tech giants command roughly two-thirds of all digital ad spend.
More recently, Facebook’s former founding president Sean Parker warned of the dangerous and addictive impact of the company’s “social validation feedback loop.” Meanwhile, the juggernaut’s former head of user growth, venture capitalist Chamath Palihapitiya, told the Stanford Graduate School of Business that “Facebook encourages ‘fake, brittle popularity,’…[that] drives people to keep sharing posts that they think will gain other people’s approval…ripping apart the social fabric of how society works.”
The ways in which Big Tech impacts and can positively amplify our lives cannot be overstated. However, considering some of the dangers inherent to mass conglomeration of the tech giants and their near unfettered access to consumer data and information, perhaps it is time to consider differently how we oversee and interact with the very technologies that can have life-altering consequences.
The FCC’s upcoming net neutrality vote marks more than 10 years of jockeying between the agency, consumers, advocates, and companies regarding how best to address our emerging interactions within the internet economy. Maybe, just maybe, instead of following the winds of partisan political football on this issue, Congress will take the opportunity to once and for all establish clear and bi-partisan open internet rules, not subject to the whims of new presidential picks leading the FCC.
Moreover, it is incumbent upon the leaders of this nation to devise an inclusive internet policy framework that does not disproportionately harm or benefit any one set of corporate entities, particularly in detriment to the public interest. The driving goal should be to understand that multiple interests are at stake in the internet ecosystem, and to create a policy framework supportive of that reality. We must pursue a truly consumer-friendly regime that allows continued investment and innovation – from the networks to the edge. At the same time, we should employ a system that provides accessible and affordable service that people can use for consumption, production, ownership and entrepreneurship to promote real, meaningful inclusion in our increasingly digital economy.