We are in danger of replacing one set of conglomerates for another
In the weeks leading up to Wednesday’s day of protest over net neutrality in the U.S., big tech names signed on to join the fight to keep it. Among them were some of the biggest names on the internet, including Amazon, Google, and Facebook, all of which have a vested business interest in all Americans being able to access their sites quickly and frequently. But those sites did not go dark Wednesday. They didn’t slow down in an effort to mimic what life might be like for some were net neutrality to end. Instead, they mostly pointed users to other, pro-net neutrality pages.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg wrote that he and the rest of his team “strongly support” net neutrality regulations. “We’re also open to working with members of Congress and anyone else on laws to protect net neutrality,” he wrote, and linked to the Internet Association’s site for the day of action. Google’s statement was similar. A post at its public policy blog noted that “today’s open internet ensures that both new and established services, whether offered by an established internet company like Google, a broadband provider, or a small startup, have the same ability to reach users on an equal playing field.” Google linked to the same Internet Association page.
It was a muted protest, to say the least. Maybe with good reason.
Ultimately, the fight over net neutrality is about who controls the internet: users or major corporations. In that regard, there is only a degree of difference between the 20th century giants of the telecommunications sector and the those of 21st century Silicon Valley. It’s not too difficult a leap to make from wondering why your online access shouldn’t be free from walls erected by your cable company, to wondering equally why your online access shouldn’t also be free from limitations created by a social media platform, search engine, or e-commerce behemoth.
“Thanks in part to net neutrality, the open internet has grown to become an unrivaled source of choice, competition, innovation, free expression, and opportunity,” Google’s blog read. “And it should stay that way.” Few would disagree. Yet, it was just last month that the European Union slapped Alphabet, Google’s parent company, with a €2.4 billion fine for giving “prominent placement in searches to its own comparison shopping service and demot[ing] those of rivals in search results,” according to Reuters.
In 2016, ProPublica revealed that Amazon’s search algorithm “substantially favors Amazon and sellers it charges for services.” And the same year — 2014 — Comcast was throttling internet speeds as it negotiated with Netflix for streaming access (something it was unable to do after the FCC upheld net neutrality), Amazon was fighting with publisher Hachette, which refused to give Amazon pricing control over its ebooks. As the negotiations went on, Amazon prevented “customers from being able to pre-order Hachette titles, reduc[ed] the discounts it offered on Hachette books and even delay[ed] shipments of some of the publisher’s titles for up to a month, all of which had a huge impact on sales,” the Guardian reported.
For its part, Facebook would like to be an internet provider of its own. The social media’s free internet project seems to jive with Zuckerberg’s assertion Wednesday that “the internet should be free and open for everyone,” but Facebook’s free service — wherein it partners with a mobile provider to allow customers to access Facebook, even without a data plan — would only allow free access to an internet experience curated by Facebook. As it happens, in India, Facebook’s “free basics” internet sparked a debate on exactly the thing Zuckerberg promoted Wednesday: net neutrality. The opposition it encountered there, based on the limitations it set and the questions it raised about internet freedoms, contributed to its difficulties in launching the service in that country.
The role of the new tech conglomerates is important to both Americans and internet users outside the U.S. — even somewhere like Canada where net neutrality remains protected. Maybe especially so. We have been insulated from the debate over how our internet access might be curtailed or curated beyond our control, to a point where we may never have that debate before things change dramatically without our input. We may retain net neutrality, but our choices once we’re on the web are not necessarily becoming any freer; by the looks of it, just the opposite.
There is another aspect to consider as this debate moves forward.
Following the news that Amazon had moved to acquire grocery chain Whole Foods, Lina M. Khan, writing in the New York Times, raised the spectre of the 19th Century railroads in an effort to describe a way to conceptualize what Amazon is doing. “In several key ways, Amazon uses its power as the railroads did. By integrating across business lines, Amazon now competes with the companies that rely on its platform. This decision to not only host and transport goods but to also directly make and sell them gives rise to a conflict of interest, positioning Amazon to give preferential treatment to itself,” she wrote. As for future innovation? “Start-ups will be less likely to enter the field against such an integrated competitor,” she wrote.
The point is: even if start-ups were given equal preference by U.S. internet providers, there might be no point. So much for the proliferation of online competition, one of the key issues at the heart of net neutrality.
The battle for net neutrality is for Americans to fight, but the one over who controls the internet, and thus more and more of our society, is something we will share no matter where we live. Asking how we want to experience the web is only one part of it. More pressing is: How do we want to experience the world? The time to answer that question is now.