Net Neutrality: The 2018 Aftermath

Posted by Mitchell - January 10, 2018 (entry 728)

It might be premature to say, but it appears that the fight over net neutrality now marks the high point of media activism in American history. We saw wide-ranging ongoing activism throughout 2017, protests in more than 600 cities (including Chicago). The FCC docket, which already was the most-commented-on issue in the FCC's history, broke yet another order of magnitude.

And yet, the FCC by a three-to-two vote abolished net neutrality outright. No Title-I versus Title-II reclassification debate, no watered-down half measures, nothing. The FCC simply made net neutrality a dead letter.

The coverage and condemnation was swift, to the point where TV shows that normal everyday watch like Colbert and Seth Meyers and Saturday Night Live all prominently discussed the issue, the vote, and its potential aftermath. Certainly folks active on YouTube and on Twitch felt the potential impact

Commentary on the issue made predictions ranging from bad to worse. A sampling: My friend and fellow media activist Jennifer Pozner who wrote that "no words will sum up how depressing and dangerous this is". Another fellow activist, John Anderson at the DIYMedia blog, wrote a pessimistic but all too accurate blog post where the end of net neutrality marks the end of a four-decade-long quest to suppress the gains wrought by the activism of the 1960s and their aftermath. Anderson quoted the commentator Sarah Kendzior who went further, saying "For nearly a year, America has stood at the crossroads of a damaged democracy and a burgeoning autocracy. If net neutrality is destroyed, we will cross firmly into the latter, and our return is unlikely.". The anticipated effects of net neutrality's demise include the establishment of barriers to entry for new players in current markets, the harm to libraries and free speech.

I hate to say it, but these predictions may well come to pass. And yet that hasn't stopped people and groups from fighting back, on multiple fronts, with vigor. In the short term, the most likely avenue to win a reversal of the FCC's vote to abolish net neutrality is the forthcoming lawsuits. A great many parties are piling on, from nonprofit groups to the big tech firms to state attorneys general, including Lisa Madigan. And there's good reason to think that those lawsuits will win, particularly since there's reason to believe the potentially fraudulent basis of the FCC's decision. Even with a victory restoring net neutrality, as could well happen, the FCC, led by the execrable Pai, may just sit on his hands during his tenure as chair and simply refuse to enforce net neutrality once it's restored, leaving the big corporate ISPs to proceed with their plans anyway. It may take another suit (or two) to make Pai ultimately do his job, at which point he may simply abandon ship and return to the corporate sector.

Another front has been at the legislative level. In the days since the FCC's vote, Congressional Democrats have quickly mobilized support to the point that, just yesterday (from the time of this writing), the Democrats have achieved the numbers to force a Resolution of Disapproval vote. This avenue has much less likely chance to succeed in the short term; the Democrats don't have sufficient votes, and even if they were to muster the votes (maybe after the 2018 elections, if the Democrats can reclaim Congress), a presidential veto is likely. And in a breaking development: We're now seeing state legislators enter the fray.

The fight for net neutrality has given a surprising, and very welcome, shot in the arm to local broadband initiatives. You can consider net neutrality a rearguard action; it forces the cable and telephone monopolies rampant across America from abusing their privileged position to profit at the expense of free expression and innvoation. But if you have competition, the privilege is lost. That competition won't come from the markets, which are horribly concentrated, but from a constellation of local, affordable, government-run, broadband initiatives. It's no surprise then to see that the opposition are strangling these networks before they have a chance to be built and spending considerable funds to that end.

The fact that's there's such widespread activism and involvement on so many avenues, and why we were able to win repeatedly in the past, and why I'm hopeful in the long term even if the short term is a mix of good news and discouraging bad news. Critically, we have a rare opportunity which we have to seize to move the window of possibility beyond. And that's what I think the next front, at least conceptually, needs to be. Not just challenging monopolies and the policies they advocate, but challenging the very economic basis of competition. Competition breeds monopolies; you don't see competitors at sports events stick around for the whole duration of tournaments. They're winnowed down and steadily eliminated, and if we can understand that clearly in sports, why are we stupid to it in economics? But, I hasten to say, that's not a call for state control of the economy. It's a call for some alternative beyond command planning and beyond markets (which devolve into command planning). It's a call some kind of democratic planning of our economy, and there are well-worked-out models of same demonstrating how it can work. Even discussing this topic might be the biggest taboo we now face, but taboos have been broken before, and they can be broken here. It is the understandable next direction to follow, the next front to work on; discuss it we must, act on it we must, for the sake of net neutrality and much else besides.

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