Trump’s FCC Chair Sells a Fake History of the Internet
Trump’s FCC Chair Ajit Pai is not telling the truth.
He isn’t simply making a sincere argument for free markets as the source of innovation — an argument that falls apart under scrutiny anyway.
He’s selling a phony history of the Internet where Net Neutrality never existed and heavy-handed government regulation to protect it is the big threat to continued growth. And in doing so, he’s pretending that the important thing about the Internet is the pipes and wires — when we all know it’s the content and ideas that live on those wires.
Pai claims that the “light touch” of government regulation has allowed the Internet to thrive, and he isn’t wrong. But that’s because most of what makes the Internet great is the information on it — and government can’t touch that, because it’s free speech.
When it comes to the infrastructure of the Internet — the pipes and wires that Net Neutrality is all about — there hasn’t been all that much to regulate. The companies lay down wires, we pay them for access to receive and send data, and the market handles the price point. Might not be perfect, but it has worked.
Technological innovation has of course been part of that process, but there’s no reason to think keeping Net Neutrality in place by law will hinder that at all.
Net Neutrality has been the reality since the Internet began. Pai completely left this obviously very crucial fact out of his speech. We have always had Net Neutrality.
And, I mean — of course we have. Would anyone expect the phone company to tell you what you can and can’t say on the phone? Or to ask you to pay thousands of dollars for the privilege of talking to certain people?
The Internet could not have worked without Net Neutrality. No one would have cared about it or wanted to use it if it was dominated by the same big names that own TV, film, radio and recording.
But just as important — in the early days of the Net, there was no technology available that could easily allow ISPs to monitor content. So Net Neutrality was the situation, even though it wasn’t the law. It just happened naturally.
But believe it — as soon as the technology became available, ISP’s started testing the waters, and about a decade of legal battles ensued, famously involving Comcast, Verizon, and other ISPs, and the FCC — which was trying to enforce Net Neutrality.
That never stifled innovation in any way whatsoever. Technology continued to improve. Silicon Valley continued to innovate. Broadband service continued to expand. Net Neutrality hasn’t hindered those processes in any way.
Marketplace realities have, though. Rural areas are just not dense enough to incentive private sector investment, and state laws often preempt localities from building the infrastructure themselves.
Under Obama, the FCC began investing in rural connections, while strong federal involvement and a rewrite of FCC rules also protected Net Neutrality. Now, that protection looks to be at an end — unless Congress acts.
Pai’s version of history — where the big change was the Obama-era regulations — is a gross distortion. Those protections did nothing more or less than maintain the status quo, and also filled gaps where private investment was lacking.
Pai argues that capacity expansion is in danger if ISPs can’t monetize and increase profit through, for example, tiered plans that are prohibited under Neutrality.
But this is another lie. Incentive to invest still exists: We still have to pay for bandwidth, as we always have, and ISPs make plenty of profit off that fee — despite offering nothing but hardware.
But the way it’s always worked — and why the Internet is the great leveler, different from cable tv and more like a telephone, is that everyone pays the same when offering content, and though consumers of content can pay more to get faster speed, that’s never a function of what they’re looking at. It’s content neutral.
Now, two major things will change: One, content providers will be able to pay to deliver their content faster, to give it priority over other content — the stuff normal, everyday people create, but probably can’t pay for. And, ISPs will be able to charge different fees depending on the content being transmitted.
Think of Youtube and Instagram and Twitter and how they’ve changed content delivery and undermined traditional authority when it comes to information, news, and art. That has had both good and bad consequences, but one thing is for sure — that equalizing effect is the definitive, essential, most important quality of the Internet — or at least it’s tied for first place with connectivity itself — which is also threatened by the new rules.
The Internet is a 2-way street. The Internet means the People decide what gets popular. No expensive FCC license required, as with television and radio. With a laptop, desktop or smartphone, you can be world famous in minutes.
Imagine now that it took several minutes for a Youtube video to load unless the content-creator — the “you” in Youtube — pays extra to their Internet Service Provider. Your average American would have very little chance of being seen. Disney, CNN, FoxNews — they would dominate.
The Internet as we know it wouldn’t exist. It never would have caught on without the equalizing effect of neutrality.
Connectivity could also decline without neutrality. Pai argues that connectivity is why we need to allow the wire-owners to profit any way they see fit. He says that without this incentive, they won’t invest in more broadband. But this argument is, like all of his rhetoric, eloquent nonsense.
Internet providers are making huge profits already. They all agree that the cost of providing data is declining faster than the cost of needed infrastructure expansion is increasing — by a lot. In other words, profit isn’t an issue.
And in fact, if as Pai envisions, the Internet of Things, Virtual Reality applications, Telemedicine, and other promised uses of the Internet are going to explode, vastly increased profits are on the horizon. Creating the needed infrastructure has only become cheaper, while the required data is growing exponentially. Continuing to charge a fee for bytes is a perfectly sustainable business model. Truly, it’s an absurdly remunerative windfall, forever.
There is no need to tier service, no need to allow big user to dominate. There is no need, but there is greed.
If phone lines ran out of capacity, who should have first priority? Emergency services, right? And then who?
Shoppers? Telemarketers? Politicians?
Or ordinary people who want to call their mom? Patriot citizens who want to organize a protest? Family doctors calling their patients?
Ask yourself the same about the Internet.
It’s the most powerful technology of the 21st century, one of the most powerful in human history. And Donald Trump wants the companies that own the wire to control who can use it, for what — based on how much money they have.
Call your Congressperson tomorrow. This doesn’t have to be over.