Axios Parrots A Lot Of Dumb, Debunked Nonsense About Net Neutrality
from the learning nothing from history dept
I’ve talked a lot about how the Trump net neutrality repeal was a massive con. It effectively gutted the FCC’s consumer protection oversight at telecom monopoly behest, then tried to ban states from being able to protect US consumers as well. Worse, it was based on a bunch of absolute bullshit about how doing this would spur network investment, create jobs, and result in amazing new innovation. All propped up by bad data and fake and dead people hired by the telecom industry. It was a massive ploy to further obliterate meaningful oversight of predatory, widely disliked regional telecom monopolies under the guise of progress.
And it worked flawlessly. None of the promised benefits materialized, but the industry got everything it wanted, namely: regulators too enfeebled to do much about US telecom market failure, high prices, and limited competition. Worse perhaps, the dumb gambit was all propped up by a select number of experts and press outlets that appear to have learned absolutely nothing from the experience.
Like Axios, for example. As we recently noted, Biden’s executive order prods the FCC to restore net neutrality and the agency’s Title II authority over broadband providers. The FCC can’t do this until the Biden administration gets around to actually staffing the FCC. The simple act of appointing and seating a new agency boss alone could take much of this year, so any real action on more contentious issues like net neutrality likely won’t happen for some time.
But the telecom industry is getting a running start undermining such efforts by trotting out the same nonsensical talking points they’ve been using for fifteen years. And they’re getting the inadvertent (?) help of outlets like Axios, which this week parroted a long list of false industry claims verbatim without even bothering to fact check them. Such as the idea that Trump regulators engaged in “light touch” regulation (aka: letting AT&T do whatever the fuck it wants), which frames doing anything other than that as something heavy handed.
Then there’s this utterly false Axios claim from unnamed “industry leaders” that net neutrality harms network investment:
“Industry leaders fear net neutrality rules will pave the way for the government to set broadband prices and have argued that the rules deter investment in the sector.”
First, the US government is terrified of seriously regulating broadband prices. It’s treated as the most radical policy proposal possible by the majority of both campaign-cash slathered parties. I doubt even under the most progressive of potential Biden appointments would the FCC seriously regulate broadband rates. Even when the agency has expanded consumer protection rules (like net neutrality), they’ve gone to comical lengths to avoid treating broadband like a utility or regulating prices (see: the forbearance language in the 2015 net neutrality order). The threat of this happening has been used by industry for scare-mongering purposes for 25 years, yet it never materializes, even if treating broadband more like a utility might make sense given broadband’s essential nature (see: Covid).
Second, it takes about sixty seconds of research to find that the claim that “net neutrality hurt broadband investment” was never actually true. Yes, AT&T, Comcast, and friends claimed that net neutrality rules hampered investment, but there are several different studies now showing how that claim was absolutely false. And ample earnings reports, SEC filings, and other data showcasing how AT&T and others cut network investment in the wake of the repeal. There’s even a long list of industry CEOs on the public record making it very clear net neutrality didn’t impact investment.
If you’re a reporter and you you feel the need to give an industry lobbyist ample room to make various claims, you should at least point out where that lobbyist might not be telling the truth so your readers have some vague idea where the truth actually is. But Axios doesn’t do that. Instead, it lets former FCC boss turned top cable lobbyist Mike Powell make all kinds of unsubstantiated claims about what net neutrality is (or isn’t):
“Net neutrality has become an expensive, time-wasting exercise that has little real world effect,” Michael Powell, president of cable trade group NCTA, said in a statement. “The drama detracts from focusing on genuine broadband issues, most critically our collective effort to get broadband to communities that lack service.”
Again, the “real world effect” was that the FCC was left largely powerless to protect consumers right before a pandemic struck and gave everybody a painful crash course on the importance of broadband. The “real world effect” was that the repeal left federal and state regulators less prepared to rein in billing fraud (like bogus fees) and other harms of mindless monopolization (aka limited competition). And the “real world effect” was that with neither competition nor regulatory oversight to constrain them, regional telecom monopolies doubled down on shitty behavior, price hikes, and layoffs just as most folks predicted.
Axios proceeds to quote a Powell claim (again unchallenged) that doing anything other than letting AT&T dictate all federal telecom policy is doomed to failure:
“Of course, we can all suit up to play another game of ping pong, with yet another administration, but the inevitable years-long regulatory proceeding, exhaustive court challenges and likely trip to the U.S. Supreme Court some three or four years from now serves no one.”
Yes, ideally you’d want Congress passing a net neutrality law to prevent the wobbling back and forth of the FCC as it shifts between parties. But because the US Congress is a corrupt mess in thrall to telecom monopolies, that’s not happening anytime soon. And yes, the FCC restoring its consumer protection authority might run face-first into a rightward-lurching Supreme Court, but your alternative is to simply not try to do anything to fix this corrupt dysfunction, which is certainly AT&T and Comcast’s preferred endgame.
Again, the net neutrality repeal didn’t just kill “net neutrality rules,” it gutted the FCC’s consumer protection authority and tried to ban states from filling the consumer protection void. And again, the repeal involved a whole lot of dodgy data and outright fraud on the part of the telecom lobby. A reader walks away from the Axios piece understanding exactly none of that. The entire piece is a perfect example of the problem with “view from nowhere” or “he said, she said” journalism, where the truth gets lost somewhere amidst efforts to create the kind of bland, illusory balance that won’t offend sources or advertisers.
You’d like to think the press learned a little something from the net neutrality repeal and the last four years of Trumpism, but as the net neutrality (read: basic oversight for regional telecom monopolies) debate heats up once again, there’s already ample evidence that’s simply not the case.