Dumb Telecom Take Of The Week: Because The Internet Didn't Explode, Killing Net Neutrality Must Not Have Mattered
from the bad faith gibberish dept
Very worried about the possible restoration of net neutrality at the Biden FCC, the telecom sector has taken to using telecom industry-friendly news outlets to parrot things you may be surprised to learn aren’t actually true.
This week a coalition of infotainment outlets, including Fox News, The Hill, Reason, and the Washington Examiner all pushed stories with the same underlying narrative: four years ago net neutrality was repealed and the internet didn’t explode, therefore repealing net neutrality must not have mattered. The narrative also bumbled around Twitter thanks to former Ajit Pai assistant Nathan Leamer, who now works for Targeted Victory, a DC internet comms and policy shop whose members have (surprise) telecoms like AT&T as a client.
All of the coordinated stories (likely requested by AT&T and/or Comcast, then funneled through their K Street policy shops to friendly news outlets) sent some variation of the same message. Because the internet didn’t grind to an absolute halt, gutting net neutrality just didn’t matter:
“Democrats and the media widely denounced the move at the time, calling it an encroachment on personal freedoms and would lead to the end of the internet as we know it. But their melodramatics have proven to be little more than that in the years since.”
You’ll be surprised to learn that all of these hot takes not only intentionally misrepresent what net neutrality is, but what actually happened. They also intentionally try to frame net neutrality as a “partisan debate” to sow dissent, when in reality a bipartisan majority of Americans supported the rules and didn’t want them repealed (that wasn’t mentioned in any of the reports for obvious reasons). And while there was no shortage of hyperbole on both sides of the net neutrality debate’s sprawling 19-year span (find me a tech policy debate where overheated rhetoric doesn’t exist), the idea that “the internet still works therefore the repeal was a good idea” is just absolute gibberish.
The Repeal Did Way More Than “Eliminate Net Neutrality Rules”
For those who still don’t understand, the Trump FCC repeal of net neutrality didn’t just “kill net neutrality rules.” It gutted much of the FCC’s consumer protection authority over telecom giants, shoveling it over to the FTC that lacks the authority and resources to adequately police the sector (the entire point). Not only that, it tried to ban states from having any authority over telecom as well. AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast’s goal: eliminating most meaningful state and federal oversight of one of the most monopolized and disliked industries in America.
It’s downright dumb that anybody remotely familiar with U.S. broadband monopolies would celebrate any of that.
One reason big ISPs haven’t behaved worse in the wake of the repeal isn’t because the rules didn’t matter, it’s because of the states. The courts ruled that the FCC’s attempt to block states from protecting broadband consumers was a gross over reach. In response, several states (like Washington, Maine, and California) passed replacement state level net neutrality laws ISPs weren’t keen on violating. Large ISPs were also nervous about the return of net neutrality rules on the federal level (yeah, the threat of regulation can be nearly as much of a deterrent as actual regulation) so they generally tried to avoid stupid stuff that was too ham fisted: like blocking entire websites or competitors outright.
Granted the nation’s biggest ISPs still engaged in net neutrality violations, they just had to be quieter and slightly more clever about it. That often involved imposing gatekeeper barriers, then trying to sell consumers and policymakers on the idea they were exciting new value propositions. Like AT&T imposing arbitrary and unnecessary broadband usage caps, then using those caps to disadvantage streaming competitors. Or CenturyLink briefly blocking internet access to sling ads. Or Verizon charging you extra to stream HD video. Or Sprint trying to charge its subscribers extra just to enjoy music, video, or games.
No, the internet didn’t stop working completely (not that actual experts on this subject claimed it would), but some negative, paradigm-shifting stuff has happened. ISPs have just tried to keep in a bit reined in. Why? They don’t want to violate new state laws, or provide ammunition for the return of federal rules (which the courts have stated the FCC has the authority to re-impose). Did any of the outlets above or guys like Leamer mention any of that? No? I wonder why.
Something telecom giants and their assorted policy allies would like you to not understand: the repeal of net neutrality for telecom giants like Comcast was about way more than net neutrality. It was about further weakening the FCC’s authority to hold them accountable for much of anything. Net neutrality rules were an imperfect stopgap measure to try and prevent telecom monopolies from abusing their gatekeeping market power in the absence of (a) meaningful competition (especially at faster speeds) and (b) a functional Congress interested in tackling telecom monopolization and 30 years of proven bad behavior. It’s obvious to anybody familiar with companies like Comcast or AT&T that U.S. telecom lacks both healthy competition and consistent, competent regulatory oversight.
Why Would Anybody Applaud Comcast Sponsored Bullshit And Fraud?
This apparently needs repeating: a telecom regulator ignoring all objective data and neutering itself at the behest of the telecom lobby is a bad thing. Ignoring the public and using bogus data to eliminate popular consumer protections that took fifteen years of consensus making to craft is a bad thing. Telecom lobbyists using dead and fake people to create fake support for broadly unpopular policy is a bad thing. Putting natural monopolies with 30 years of anti-competitive behavior under their belts in charge of US telecom policy is a bad thing. If you’re applauding this stuff you’re either misinformed, or engaged in the misinforming.
One problem is that across its massive lifespan the net neutrality debate simply became too convoluted and boring for the general public to maintain engagement with. In the years since the repeal I’ve tried to simplify the argument to help the easily bored and confused: the real underlying problem with U.S. broadband is a lack of competition caused by regional monopolies, and the corrupt state and federal lawmakers who coddle those monopolies. If you had functional competition and some marginally-competent oversight, you wouldn’t need net neutrality rules, because users would simply drop ISPs that behaved badly–or be protected by state or federal consumer protection watchdogs in cases where they couldn’t.
Net neutrality violations, privacy violations, spotty service, high prices, slow speeds, and terrible customer service, are all just symptoms of limited broadband competition. In U.S. markets where you have neither healthy broadband competition nor competent regulatory oversight (read: most of them) you get experiences like Comcast, which everybody should be familiar with. Unfortunately, both parties (admittedly one more than the other) have a bizarre allergy to fixing, or even acknowledging the monopolization and corruption that ensures U.S. broadband continues to suck. So you either get convoluted solutions to what actually is a fairly simple problem (rare), or no solutions at all (common).
Net neutrality rules were a complicated band aid applied by the FCC in the wake of a Congress too corrupt to stand up to telecom monopolies. If you’re applauding AT&T, Comcast, and Verizon’s successful bid to lobotomize the FCC so they can continue ripping you off with shitty, expensive service, you’ve most certainly been rooting for the wrong team. Net neutrality rules certainly weren’t perfect, but they were an attempt to do something within the confines of a corrupt, broken system. The general alternative has been to let giant regional monopolies like AT&T and Comcast dictate all state and federal telecom policy, and if you have a pair of eyes and a wallet you can clearly see how well that strategy has worked over the last 30 years in America.
So as the net neutrality fracas heats up in the new year, at least try to vet the sources of the claims being made, and whether they’re making those claims in good faith as truly objective observers. And try to understand that the real underlying problem activists and experts are trying to fix (admittedly sometimes clumsily and with hyperbole) is telecom monopolization and the corruption that protects it. If individuals, politicians, or pundits aren’t willing to take concrete steps to fix those two key problems–or can’t even acknowledge they exist–they’re generally not going to be a helpful part of any meaningful solution.