Gustav Jönsson | 5 March 2018
In Niall Ferguson’s recent book, The Square and the Tower, Ferguson wrote about how networks have shaped history – from the Reformation through the Republic of Letters and up to our own networked age. Ferguson charted and analysed Trump’s network, and he claimed that it was key in Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton’s flawed hierarchy. Ferguson predicted that there would be a clash between Trump and Silicon Valley. Trump will square off against the information and communications companies of Facebook, Google, and others. The first battle, Ferguson speculated, may be over net neutrality. It did not take long for Ferguson’s prediction to come true. The Federal Communications Committee (FCC) has now decided to overturn the regulations upholding net neutrality. And just like Ferguson predicted, by appointing Ajit Pai as Chairman of the FCC, Trump is responsible for the impending loss of net neutrality.
Many have heard of net neutrality, but few understand what it means. Net neutrality is the principle that all bits of data are treated alike without any regard for the content or source of the data. Thus under net neutrality, internet service providers (ISP) are prohibited from favouring or disfavouring certain websites or apps. They cannot speed up or slow down data from specific sources and nor can they ban websites or information.
To understand why net neutrality may soon be lost, we must understand the FCC. The FCC is an unelected committee lead by Chairman Pai. To the cynic, Ajit Pai’s career has the whiff of entryism. He was formerly a lawyer for Verizon, a company that has spent millions of dollars on lobbying against net neutrality. Now Pai leads the FCC in delivering the deregulation that Verizon and other telecom companies have salivated over for years. His transition from private employee to public servant was slightly too seamless.
Without net neutrality ISPs will be able to charge consumers extra for the use of specific websites and apps. If you want to use social media such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram you may now have to pay, say, five dollars. To stream from Netflix would require an additional five dollars. And ISPs could put Wikipedia behind a pay-wall if they wished to. The internet will become like cable TV.
The ISP sector is already oligopolistic, without net neutrality, internet power will become even more centralized. ISPs will be able to throttle or speed up the internet on specific websites. This allows them to, almost like an extortioner, demand money from websites by threatening to throttle internet access. While established companies such as Netflix may afford to pay the protection money, start-ups and small businesses cannot.
That something is wrong with the abolition of net neutrality can be gathered from the euphemistic title it was given: “Acts To Restore Internet Freedom”. The title is misleading in an almost Orwellian way. The loss of net neutrality will not be freedom in any meaningful sense; only if “freedom” means “freedom to censor” does the name of the acts make any sense. ISPs will have the freedom to blacklist websites they do not like, in effect, to censor the internet. That we are not more scandalized about this is only because it is obscured by technology lingo. Imagine how preposterous it would be if the FCC was arguing for freedom of expression by abolishing the First Amendment on the grounds that it restricts the freedom of pencil manufacturers from censoring what people write.
The abolition of net neutrality will give ISPs extensive control to interfere and even censor political speech. It will be easy for an ISP to throttle a website it deems controversial. An ISP with an interest in the re-election of Trump could give FOX News faster internet whilst ensuring that The New York Times and The Washington Post experience buffering issues. Larger newspapers may have the resources to buy lawyers and pay for premium internet access, but smaller publications will be increasingly vulnerable. The “controversial” websites liable to be censored are often the ones with fewer readers and smaller resources. Hence censorship will strike hardest at those who are least able to defend against it.
Telecom and cable companies have continually reassured the public that these worries are overemphasised. Ajit Pai has said that “all of these harms … are all hypothetical. There is no market failure. Internet service providers are not, and have not, blocked content willy-nilly.” And AT&T, following the FCC’s vote to “restore internet freedom”, said the following: “We do not block websites, nor censor online content, nor throttle or degrade traffic based on the content, nor unfairly discriminate in our treatment of internet traffic.”
This is false. As the American Civil Liberties Union notes, internet service providers have several times blocked or interfered with political speech. AT&T censored part of a performance by singer Eddie Vedder. Vedder sang “George Bush, leave this world alone … George Bush, find yourself another home”. When the interference was discovered, AT&T assumed the ingratiating role of the pseudo-benevolent censor. They lied, saying that they had censored to protect youths from “excessive profanity”. Then they blamed the it on a contractor they had hired to screen the show.
There are other examples of censorship. Back in 2005, During a Canadian labour dispute, Telus blocked two pro-union websites. At the time Telus claimed to have the right to censor any website. Then in 2007, Verizon Wireless removed access to a pro-abortion group’s text messaging program. They said that it would not provide service programs to any group that “may be seen as controversial or unsavoury to any of our users.” They backtracked after public criticism, saying that it had been an “isolated incident”. Ajit Pai, presumably forgetting his claim that there had never been any ISP censorship, has dismissed examples such as the above as “isolated cases” and “scattered anecdotes”.
In America internet freedom is diminishing. In Britain it has never been particularly strong – the list of banned and restricted websites is long. And although the UK abides by the EU’s largely pro-net neutrality guidelines, that may change after Brexit. In the EU the free internet is embattled; not long ago, a directive requiring automatic upload filters was partially defeated. The directive, in its original form, would have mandated websites with user-generated content to install copyright programmes to police suspected copyright infringements. This, to put it mildly, would have abridged freedom of information, freedom of expression, and privacy. Luckily, that was avoided. But as I write this, infringement on net neutrality is all around us. The next instance could be in Britain. Depending on what the government review concludes, net neutrality in the UK may be threatened. If so, then it is imperative that we all contact, and if necessary spam, our MPs with demands that net neutrality is defended and upheld. Because once lost, it may be lost for a long time.