When the President of the United States disses fundamentals from climate science to the separation of powers, it is admittedly a very difficult time to debate any issue outside the gravitational pull of so much regressive momentum. Amid a flurry of truly dangerous policy reversals, the storm now brewing over the issue of Net Neutrality will doubtless be subsumed by the broader narrative of “Trump rollbacks,” but this generalization only clouds our ability to assess what’s actually happening in an already obscure area of cybernetic policy. Especially through the chaos of social media. (Add to this, the recent kerfuffle over the FCC possibly taking action against CBS for a joke made about Trump by Stephen Colbert, and we’ve got a whole circus, but we’ll stick with Net Neutrality for the moment.)
First, let us pause to acknowledge this dichotomy: the fact that we choose to interact in a walled garden like Facebook as complicit lab rats in that company’s grand data experiment while posting declarations that the web must remain “free” and “open” is a delusion that must be reconciled before considering an issue like Neutrality. Free and open are nice words and easy to support with a mouse click, but what’s really at stake here?
The order that FCC Chairman Ajit Pai proposes to reverse—for the moment anyway—is not actually Net Neutrality itself; and the real question before us is whether the chairman will merely deregulate or will instead live up to any of his prior testimony and help to shepherd a more effective and comprehensive policy aimed at achieving Neutrality principles. As noted in my last post on this subject, the FCC rules only affect ISPs, and if we truly want an internet that protects all parties great and small, then a coherent and consistent regulatory framework must be pursued for edge providers as well.
In practical terms, it seems to me that there is little value in saying that ISPs (AT&T, Comcast, etc.) may not discriminate via broadband while edge providers (Google, Facebook, etc.) are free to discriminate via algorithm. And in simple terms, this was the crux of Pai’s dissent in passing the 2015 order which placed ISPs under Title II of the Communications Act, giving the FCC power to regulate these providers as “utilities.”
It is important to remember that Net Neutrality is a goal and not a specific policy doctrine. Its principles go back to the days of dial-up, and as attorney and expert Mitchell Lazarus argues in his blog, regulating ISPs as “utilities” through the 1990s was a key reason why we had more competition among this class of providers than we do today—when most markets are served by a monopoly or duopoly at best. But, in an earlier post from October 2014, Lazarus also explains why placing ISPs under Title II of the Communications Act alone would not achieve Neutrality—partly because internet traffic simply does not ebb and flow like phone service for which Title II was designed. Lazarus writes …
“An ISP’s capacity is, after all, finite. At peak times it may not be able to accommodate 100% of all potential content – email, Facebook posts, Netflix video, VoIP calls, people working from home, casual browsing. At those times, some discrimination must necessarily occur in allotting access to providers. The question, then, is how to ensure that the discrimination is ‘fair’. An effective non-discrimination rule would give an ISP managing a traffic overload clear guidance on which bits to send on and which to hold back in every possible situation. More than that, a proper rule would let the ISP program in algorithms that make these decisions automatically, on the fly.”
So, Chairman Pai’s plan to reverse the rule placing ISPs under Title II does not in itself “roll back Neutrality” because one cannot roll back what has not been achieved. Having said that, it seems that Lazarus would not endorse reversing the Title II status so much as adding to it “…a rule that requires the ISP to open its channels (cable or phone line or fiber) to competing ISPs.” These competitors would pay to use the channels, and consumers would once again have options to switch ISPs if they become dissatisfied with the service, according to Lazarus’s assessment.
Whether or not the monopolistic state of the ISPs can be reversed or mitigated, the same problem exists on the edge provider side of the equation, with a company like Google owning most of search and advertising in the U.S. and Europe, along with one Amazon, one Facebook, etc. It seems to me, we consumers cannot expect an effective approach to the goals of Neutrality without meaningful and complementary regulation by both the FCC and the FTC of both ISPs and edge providers.
In a nutshell, the FCC’s job is to protect consumers vis-a-vis access to the web while the FTC’s job is to protect consumers as we interact with edge providers once we’re on the web. And it is unclear at the moment what happens when a company functions as both access and edge provider.
It’s mostly about corporate interests for now.
Be prepared for this fight to at least sound existential in the rhetoric to follow from places like the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Be prepared for the story to be positioned as an Obama-for-People v Trump-for-Corporations narrative—and for the Neutrality tornado to fling about all manner of unrelated topics (did someone say SOPA?). But for now, this battle seems to have more to do with very large corporations on both sides—and very little to do with consumers. Mostly it’s over the issue of who is going to pay for what.
Large users of broadband—Netflix is the world’s leader—are not the companies that invest in the physical hardware to expand access, speed, and reliability. And there is an extent to which the ISPs, which do make these investments, see Neutrality regulations as keeping the access prices paid by these huge edge-provider services artificially low. There is more to learn on this subject as the story unfolds; but this follow-the-money line of inquiry is likely more accurate than taking at face value the story that the Obama-era rules were providing meaningful consumer protections.
Net Neutrality & Copyright
In both real and fictitious ways, the Neutrality fight is likely to implicate copyright and the interests of rights holders. Because Neutrality principles are based on the premise that universal access to the web is a civil right, remedies for online infringement like throttling speeds or account termination become unavoidably intertwined in the public debate over Neutrality. This may foster exaggerated and misleading headlines claiming that major rights holders (i.e. Hollywood) are against Neutrality. But there is no underlying reason why copyright enforcement cannot coexist with Neutrality principles, and I worry that persistent confusion will rally creators to lobby against their own self-interests.
In this guest post, for Hypebot, No Internet, No Music: Why Musicians Should Care About Net Neutrality, Will Meyer has the right spirit but is making an important error in my view. The understandable instinct to assume that President Trump wants to gut protections for independent creators obscures the fallacy in which Meyer seems to conflate edge provider Facebook with the ISPs affected by FCC rules. He writes, “… the truth is Facebook isn’t free. We pay with our data and we must pay with our dollars if we want the algorithm to take our bands seriously.” Absolutely right. And, in a slightly different context, Ajit Pai said essentially the same thing in his dissent over former Chairman Wheeler’s proposal to place ISPs under Title II.
More relevant to Meyers’s concerns is the fact that Pai specifically noted that having two separate regulatory regimes for ISPs and edge providers only entrenched the market advantage of the latter, which goes directly to the heart of some of Meyers’s observations about using Facebook for promotion of his band. This does not mean Pai gets a free pass; it means creators need to look way beyond the rhetoric to follow how the policy will affect them.
Evolving Neutrality policies in both the U.S. and abroad should be closely watched by copyright interests because the statutory frameworks can make a difference with regard to enforcement. Neutrality is meant to protect access and dissemination of legal activity online, and there is an extent to which the public debate becomes mangled by those who view both broadband and access to unlicensed content (i.e. piracy) as interrelated “rights.”
As indicated in previous posts, I advocate a wait-and-see approach to Chairman Pai’s policies, not because I inherently trust his view; but because the 2015 framework for ISPs doesn’t really seem to achieve the consumer-facing goals that people think it does. Unfortunately, this probably won’t stop the hyperbole from flying in every direction, which is unlikely to help the development of a more coherent policy.