On December 14, the FCC will vote on a repeal of a set of 2015 regulations that aimed to ensure an open and neutral internet. The proposal was drafted by the current FCC chair, Ajit Pai, a Trump appointee and former Verizon attorney. Like many of Trump’s appointees, he exists not to drain any swamps but to overflow them. As an FCC commissioner, Pai was vocal about his opposition to the 2015 regulations that classified internet service providers as Title II common carriers and his intention to repeal those regulations as soon as he possessed the power to do so. If the repeal passes, as it is likely to do, it would open the door for telecom companies like Verizon and Comcast to prioritize some internet traffic over others, creating “fast lanes” for their own products or those that pay and “slow lanes” for other content, essentially ending net neutrality as we know it.
Pai claims that repealing these regulations will lead to greater investment, innovation and options for consumers — but he is wrong. Perhaps, if the telecom industry was a free market with low barriers to entry he would have a point, but in the United States, 55 percent of consumers have only one available option for broadband internet and the other 45 percent have only two choices for the most part. If Pai’s previous employer Verizon decided to slow access to Google in favor of Yahoo, which Verizon owns, the average American consumer would not be able to just switch providers to one that upholds net neutrality. Now you might think, new companies will emerge to take advantage of the consumer demand for an open internet, but the barriers to entry are exceedingly high in the telecom industry — which is why regional monopolies are the current norm in the first place.
The major telecom companies also have significant media cross holdings, which means the first impact we will see is the expansion of “zero rating,” or providing access to the telecom’s other holdings for free or for no data. In this scenario, if the only broadband that you have access to is Comcast, which owns NBC, The Weather Channel, MSNBC, and Bravo among other media properties, Comcast could provide access to MSNBC for no additional fee, but charge a premium if you’d prefer a different news source. Wireless plans have been flirting with this possibility recently. T-Mobile’s Binge On plan, which allows users to stream video from certain sites without using data may sound nice to a consumer, but what T-Mobile failed to disclose to their customers was that streaming video for all customers, even those without Binge On, would be limited to 480p. While zero rating is not specifically prohibited, the FCC under the Obama administration was investigating four zero rating cases to determine if they violated net neutrality. Pai dismissed all of these investigations in February after assuming the chairmanship.
Eliminating net neutrality will make it much more difficult for small businesses and hopeful internet entrepreneurs to find an audience and reach consumers, effectively stifling innovation and limiting consumer choice — the opposite of Pai’s claims. As a result, his proposal has proven to be almost universally unpopular with liberals and conservatives alike, as well as tech companies, small businesses and even core Trump supporters, who broke comment records on Breitbart, and even the most ardently Trumpist subReddits. More public stalwarts of Trump’s like Kim Dotcom and Julian Assange have also taken to Twitter to express their disapproval at Pai’s actions. The only parties pleased by the decision are telecom companies and apparently neo-Nazis, who believe that ending net neutrality will give them more freedom to spread their hateful bile online (they are incorrect).
The FCC opened these proposals to public comment, and Pai’s received a record-breaking 22 million comments on the issue. However, the FCC does not require commenters to confirm their identity, which has led to some confusion about public opinion. A study of the comments, conducted by a consulting firm called Emperata and funded by telecom companies, found that of the 22 million comments, 60 percent were against the repeal, and 39 percent for. The numbers shift considerably when considering the 1.5 million unique comments (not form letters). Of these, 98 percent were against the repeal. While the majority of comments on both sides were form letters, a striking 99.6 percent of pro-repeal comments were not unique. And according data analytics firm Gravwell, roughly 80 percent of the 22 million comments were made by bots, and most of the bots were in favor of the repeal, just as most original comments were opposed to the repeal. In response to the interference, 28 Senators wrote a letter to Pai requesting that the vote be delayed until public opinion could be more accurately determined, but Pai denied the request and intends to move forward with the repeal regardless of how the American people feel about net neutrality.
Pai has even doubled down on his support of the repeal’s only fans — white supremacists. Last week he claimed that it was hypocritical of companies like Twitter and Facebook to oppose the repeal because of their hate speech policies. He specifically criticized Twitter’s recent decision to ban or un-verify a few high profile white supremacists, claiming that Twitter has a “double-standard when it comes to suspending or de-verifying conservative users’ accounts as opposed to those of liberal users.” Never mind that these users are not conservatives, but open racists: Charlottesville rally organizer Jason Kessler, self-proclaimed white supremacist Richard Spencer (mostly famous for being punched in the head during an inauguration day rally), and an alt-right troll who goes by the moniker “Baked Alaska.”
Trump has said very little personally about the issue of net neutrality, and what he has said indicates a lack of understanding of the concept. A 2014 tweet claimed that “Obama’s attack on the internet is another top down power grab. Net neutrality is the Fairness Doctrine. Will target conservative media.” Not only does this statement make very little sense on its face, but net neutrality would actually prevent telecoms from targeting media on either side of the political spectrum. As with many issues, it appears he only opposes net neutrality because Obama supported it. This lack of understanding likely explains his recent silence on the issue. Despite his running as a populist, claiming to stand up for regular people against “the swamp,” promoting Pai while knowing that he planned to gut net neutrality is just one more way that he has victimized his own supporters in favor of the centers of wealth and power.
Barring some sort of miracle, with three Republicans (including Pai) and two Democrats on the panel, it is more than likely that net neutrality dies next week. Clearly public opinion, even that of some of Trump’s most ardent supports, is irrelevant to him and Pai. The only thing that seems to matter to Pai is blind ideology and a desire to make his former employer even more money at the expense of consumers. Why am I not surprised?