Friday, February 10, 2017

President Trump and the Demise of Net Neutrailty...

Regardless of which political echo chamber you prefer, your social media news feed is likely overtaken with stories and opinions related to President Trump's first few weeks in office. But barely noticed has been, perhaps, the single most consequential and important public policy development of all... the end of the Internet as we know it.

I speak, of course, of Net Neutrality. Readers of The Nerfherder are well aware that I've been trying to raise awareness about this issue for 15 years (!) now.

Here's what you need to know.  The Internet that you've known your entire life has always been neutral. We've had Net Neutrality all this time. It's known as the First Amendment of the Internet, and it's a legal principle that states that all data must be treated equally in terms of how it's routed across the Internet's infrastructure. Whether you're trying to reach Google's website, or a college student's humble little blog, you're going to get there, and in a way that's the same regardless of how well capitalized the destination site happens to be.

That's all about to change, and with hardly anyone saying boo about it.

The telecoms have long wanted to do away with this system. They've lobbied heavily to be able to create an "EZ-Pass toll lane" for Internet traffic, whereby companies and individuals would have to pay untold fortunes in order to have people reach their websites faster, and every other website would be relegated to the sidelines. Scholars have long pointed out the immediate economic impact this would have on startups, entrepreneurship, and innovation - not to mention how it would greatly impair the ability of individuals to express their free speech in a manner where people might actually be able to view what they post.

If you don't have the resources of Google or Microsoft to pay off the telecoms, good luck to you.

During the transition period, President-elect Trump signaled his policy preference against Net Neutrality by naming Jeff Eisenach and Mark Jamison to oversee hiring and policy at the FCC (the agency that sets Net Neutrality policy). These men have histories of lobbying on behalf of the large telecoms and favoring more mergers within the telecom sector (reducing competition).

Then, once in office, President Trump appointed Ajit Pai as the new Chairman of the FCC. In just his first two weeks in office, as reported by the New York Times, Pai has aggressively been assaulting various Net Neutrality rules - stopping nine companies from providing discounted high-speed internet service to low-income individuals, not allowing a scheduled vote to take place that would have overhauled the pay-TV settop box market, and, perhaps most importantly, closed an investigation into whether AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile violated the law by giving preferential treatment to some websites and web services over others. This is the definition of violating Net Neutrality, and the FCC Chairman signaled this week that when telecoms do so, there will be no consequences.

Somehow, some way, this issue has become very partisan over the last decade. It shouldn't be.  Republicans ought to support an Internet which values free speech over censorship, which values entrepreneurship and innovation, and encourages a thriving competitive free market. As soon as you get rid of Net Neutrality, the small handful of giant telecoms will have the ability to decide what Internet content people will likely see and which web services people will likely use.

Unfortunately, the telecoms have lobbied for 20 years and have contributed millions of dollars to members of Congress (from both parties) in order to frame the issue as one where "government shouldn't regulate the Internet". But here's the problem... regardless of which side of the debate you support, regulation is the end result. If you are against Net Neutrality, the giant telecoms will regulate how websites operate and what content people will be able to access; meanwhile, if you are pro-neutrality, you're regulating the telcoms and giving a structural advantage to the websites. Either way, you're advocating for the selection of certain winners and losers. I would argue that the "free market" isn't necessarily being served by either, so the question is would you rather have a free marketplace for the telecoms or for cyberspace? Where is competition most likely to occur?

During the presidential transition period, I gave an interview urging people not to be alarmists, though when asked if Net Neutrality was under threat and should supporters be worried, I replied absolutely. The actions of the new FCC Chairman have now made it likely that the end of the Internet as we know it is only weeks away.