The Brood: The FCC is considering changing the rules regulating the internet, giving telecommunications companies the power to reward or punish companies that compete with them, and silence any views contrary to their interests. It’s only one other way that Free Speech is being threatened by the digital age.
Imagine you are a media critic. You want to go on a Jon Stewart level rant about how broken the journalism of the 21st century is. Or perhaps you are a journalist yourself, and a public policy driven one like the crew over at Vox. Particularly you want to target MSNBC. You get your cable, internet and phone service from Comcast, which owns MSNBC.
If Comcast gets the changes it wants through the FCC, it will see widely shared critiques of their many assets, in this case MSNBC, as competition, or at the very least bad for business. To make that material less available, they decide that they will slow down internet speeds specifically for that website. Or they will simply charge consumers more for faster internet speeds in bundles, favoring friendly media platforms over others.
This, in brief, is the issue of Net Neutrality. (If you want a more full, and entertaining, explanation, you can see not one, not two, but three pieces of John Oliver’s work on this.) Net Neutrality is the idea that internet service providers (ISPs), like Comcast, Verizon and AT&T, must treat all data on the internet equally, no matter who created it. The FCC made it a guiding principle of regulating ISPs in 2015. The Trump administration is now moving to reverse this decision.
Much has been written about how these changes will shut out start-ups in entertainment and Silicon Valley by imposing enormous entry-costs. Only players with large “war chests” outside their content producing assets like Amazon, Comcast, Verizon, AT&T, Apple, etc. will be able to survive the changes. So yes. It will be bad for economic dynamism. For those who favor competitive markets as a tool to drive innovation in the arts and technology, it will be an unmitigated disaster.
What I’m more concerned about in these changes is far more insidious, and less talked about. The End of Net Neutrality is one of the worst threats to Free Speech for decades. Giving telecommunications companies the power to police content creation and distribution on the internet through pricing, access and quality-control mechanisms will also mean that we are giving them the power to police speech.
In fact, they have already shown a willingness and ability to do this. The ACLU has some great examples on their website, including one from 2007:
AT&T censored words from [Pearl Jam] lead singer Eddie Vedder’s performance. The ISP, which was responsible for streaming the concert, shut off the sound as Vedder sang, “George Bush, leave this world alone” and “George Bush, find yourself another home.” By doing so, AT&T, the self-advertised presenting sponsor of the concert series, denied viewers the complete exclusive coverage they were promised. Although Vedder’s words contained no profanity, an AT&T spokesperson claimed that the words were censored to prevent youth visiting the website from being exposed to “excessive profanity.”
Remember — this was 2007, before corporations were people and themselves had free speech rights. 10 years later, in 2017, not only can companies like AT&T “speak” as much as they like through campaign contributions and unlimited political advertising, they can also, sometimes literally as above, silence opposition to their interests.
Also remember that the platforms through which you already receive much of your news (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.) already control what news you see and what content you consume through algorithms that encourage self-confirmation for profit. But they can only exist and thrive when internet speeds are high, and ISPs don’t target them. If the 21st century’s biggest media platforms must capitulate to ISPs interests merely to exist, imagine how easily these algorithms could be, and have been, used to warp our perceptions of reality to fall in line with ISPs interests.
It is a dystopian vision. But it’s one you can actually stop. Just like the Muslim Ban was stopped. Just like the Obamacare Repeal was stopped. These fights weren’t easy, and this one won’t be now. But you should call your representatives. Flood their inboxes. Their voice messages. Sign a petition. Protest on the street. Donate to important orgs. Find a list of things to do. Then do them. Democracy is a contact sport. Dictatorship is a spectator’s.