I am really struggling with the issue of “net neutrality”. The recent repeal by Trump’s Federal Communications Commission of the Obama FCC’s net neutrality rule has brought us back to the status quo as it existed in 2015. I am hearing calls for Massachusetts to step in and pass its own net neutrality rule.
Obviously, I am opposed to anything that threatens free speech. The First Amendment protects us from government restrictions on free speech. But in the new age of the Internet it feels like corporations might limit our free speech. So to the extent that “net neutrality” means assuring freedom of speech on the internet, I am 100% for it.
But, I think that those of us who care about Internet free speech might actually be getting played by the major content providers on the “net neutrality” issue.
Ostensibly, the bad guys that we are trying to regulate are players like Comcast and Verizon who own the connections to our homes. We are afraid that they might block, throttle, or overcharge certain content providers. We fear that they might impede content providers that they dislike politically.
It certainly is true that broadband providers like Comcast and Verizon do have enormous power in some areas where they have monopolies on broadband delivery.
But in reality, as someone who is in the business of trying to communicate with people, I am most afraid of Google and Facebook. They are the companies that control whether my message gets out.
For example, if Gmail decides that my political communication emails are just spam, then a huge chunk of the population just won’t hear from me. I live in real fear of that possibility. And I work hard to avoid it.
And Facebook actively censors speech. For example, recently, I wanted to post a Facebook ad to my political supporters that mentioned by work on marijuana legalization. Facebook refused to publish the ad because their robots determined that it was an offer to sell marijuana. I had to appeal up a couple of levels before a human being did the right thing.
Apart from direct censorship, both Facebook and Google wield spectacular power through their ranking of content — if one appears on the second page of Google searches or far down in the Facebook newsfeed, one will rarely get seen. Everyone who seeks to widely disseminate political or commercial speech today spends much of their time thinking about how to rise in the content rankings.
By contrast, I have never had to worry about any limits on my ability to communicate imposed by local cable providers. And, until I started hearing about “net neutrality” it never crossed my mind to worry about it.
As far as I can tell, the net neutrality fight is really a fight between the big content providers, especially those that warehouse and stream a lot of video content, and the cable providers.
Over last few years, as broadband fast enough to stream video has become widespread, a few big companies like Facebook, Google/YouTube, Apple and Netflix have become the primary sources of Internet traffic. Webpages like mine are tiny compared to video recordings sent over the Internet.
As video has become more popular, there has been congestion or the possibility of congestion for local cable providers. The local cable providers may seek through paid prioritization to charge the big video providers for the cost of upgrading their local infrastructure. The big video providers have raised the flag of free speech to create political pressure on their side of that bargaining process.
I would really welcome input from people about what they think the real problem is. To me, the scariest thing is the prospect of censorship by Facebook and Google who make their money by regulating and targeting content. I’m much less worried about the people who own the pipes, the cable providers, screening political content.
I do think it is a problem that many areas have only one broadband provider so there is no local competition. The more competition there is among broadband providers, the better off we will all be.
In addition to the question of what the real problem is, I’m interested in people’s sense of whose problem it is to fix. What jurisdiction and capacity do states have to act on this issue?
If you know of good resources on the issue, please do share them. I’ll pull them up into the list below.
- Current FCC position on net neutrality
- Obama WhiteHouse archives on net neutrality
- “The Economics of the Internet Backbone,” Nicholas S. Economides (Chapter 9 of Handbook of Telecommunications Economics, Vol. 2, 2005):
- Basic explanation of Tier 1, 2, and 3 ISPs from datapath.io
- PCWorld article about Comcast/Cogent dispute
- What everyone gets wrong in the debate over net neutrality
- Turkey Blocks — digital freedom of expression advocates