FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai is sounding the alarm about an attempted federal takeover of the internet. Mr. Pai recently received the Obama Administration’s 322-page plan for “net neutrality” and he finds it appalling. He’d like to share his specific objections with the +public but he can’t because the plan is under wraps until the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) votes on it.
Would you expect anything less from the most transparent administration in history? Secret plans to regulate the internet are circulated among the unelected members of a commission, who then make huge decisions with ramifications that will be felt around the globe, and we’re not allowed to know what they’re considering until the decision has been made. Par for the course.
Just what is “net neutrality?” Its supporters will tell you that it’s simply a policy that requires internet service providers (ISP’s) such as Comcast or Cox to afford equal access to the internet, which is to say that they must remain “neutral” among users, platforms, and types of content. Don’t they always? Well, no. Some ISP’s speed up websites or prioritize search results for companies that pay them a fee.
Net neutrality, supporters will argue, is really a blow against big corporations like Comcast. This theory might have a smidgen of credibility if Comcast weren’t a supporter of net neutrality. From Comcast’s website: “And while some have been led to believe something else, we support net neutrality. And we’ve been consistent in expressing our strong support for an open internet—in statements, speeches, blog posting, filings, and advertisings.”
Those of us who are more skeptical tend to see “net neutrality” as little more than a government takeover of the internet, something Washington has been itching to do for years. All they needed was an excuse and finally they’ve found it. Capitalizing on a popular and not necessarily unfounded distrust of corporations, the government will seize control of the freest, most egalitarian means of communication known to man…and strangle it with regulation.
Surely, you wouldn’t want ISP’s to prioritize search results for a fee, would you? Just empower the government to protect you from this huge problem that you probably didn’t even know existed and you won’t have to worry.
Supporters of net neutrality are already complaining that dissenters are mere conspiracy theorists steeped in misinformation. Net neutrality isn’t a government seizure of the internet, they argue, it’s simply a set of rules that prohibits corporations from favoring users or content. Call me crazy, but I think that a policy like that could be expressed in a few sentences. Why then is the administration’s net neutrality policy 322 pages long? And why hasn’t it been released to the public?
Commissioner Pai has read the document that the rest of us aren’t allowed to see and identified six disturbing trends contained within it. He explained his objections, in general terms, in a memorandum released this week: 1) The plan represents a monumental shift toward government control, thus empowering the FCC to act as a “Department of the Internet;” 2) The plan will increase cost to the consumer; 3) The plan will retard broadband speeds; 4) The plan will shove smaller ISP’s out of the market thus lurching toward an internet monopoly (Hint: this is the part Comcast likes); 5) The plan is an unlawful power grab that defies previously decided court cases; 6) The American people are being misled as to what the plan contains.
Net neutrality is essentially Obamacare for the web—a government takeover, sold to the public as a means of protecting us from corporations, which is in fact supported by the corporations that are supposed to hate it, which will invariably give us a crappier product at a higher price.
The problem with the internet is that it’s just too liberated for our leviathan federal government to tolerate. People can say stuff on the internet without fear of censorship. They can buy and sell things without paying the tax man. They can organize political movements that the government would rather suffocate. In short, the World Wide Web (WWW) closely resembles the Wild Wild West, and that really scares the control freaks in Washington.
Governments around the world perceive the internet as a threat. In Egypt, for example, the government shut down the internet during the most turbulent days of the Arab Spring so that opponents of the Mubarak regime could not broadcast disturbing images of police brutality to the outside world. China operates behind a huge firewall that filters out content that the government finds objectionable.
But that’s Egypt and China. Our government isn’t like that, is it?
Don’t be so sure. Former senator Joe Lieberman, a Democrat turned independent from Connecticut, envies the Chinese government’s control over its internet. He sponsored a bill in 2010 that would give the president a “kill switch” with which to shut down parts of the internet. Only in a national emergency, of course. Of course! Appearing on CNN to stump for his Defending Cyberspace as a National Asset Act, Lieberman dismissed criticisms of his bill as mere paranoia. He then cited China—yes, that China—as his example of what our cybersecurity should look like. “Right now China, the government, can disconnect parts of its internet in case of war and we need to have that here too.”
Wait just a darn minute, Senator. China’s chokehold on the internet has nothing to do with wartime necessity and everything to do with controlling information. Is that really your model?
I’m sure that supporters of net neutrality would find my reference to Lieberman’s failed bill to be utterly irrelevant. The new net neutrality policy under consideration at the FCC is another thing entirely. To which I answer: how do you know? Other than a privileged few in Washington, no one has read this thing. One of the few souls on earth who has laid eyes on it, Ajit Pai, is warning that it’s a monstrosity.
The beauty of the internet is that it’s an open space for the free exchange of goods, services, information, and most importantly, ideas. Whatever minimal degradation of that freedom that might result from your ISP providing preferential treatment to paying customers does not merit government intrusion. It’s a red herring anyway—the government doesn’t want to control the internet to protect you from Comcast, a corporation that is already abiding by the supposed principles of net neutrality on a voluntary basis. The government wants to control the internet because it’s in the business of control and it can’t stand to sit idly by while a domain of nearly limitless freedom is permitted to exist.