Shopping Mall Rules: The End of Net Neutrality
By the end of 2017, this blog and every other site on the internet will enter uncharted territory. Former telecommunications industry lobbyist Ajit Pai, appointed by the current administration, will direct the Federal Communications Commission to end the policy of Net Neutrality, which requires Internet Service Providers to treat all lawful content equally.
Until 2013, when some ISPs began to charge Netflix, Hulu, and other streaming services additional fees to deliver their content in an “internet fast lane,” Net Neutrality wasn’t an issue. ISPs, which provided the “last mile” connecting the vast internet infrastructure to individual homes, businesses, and mobile devices, delivered all content on an equal footing. In 2015 the Obama Administration’s FCC voted to classify internet service as a utility like electrical power and telephone service, which meant that regulations could guarantee equality of delivery of all lawful content — no slowdowns and no outright blocking of legal content.
This freedom is about to end. With the end of Net Neutrality, ISPs can sell packages which deliver preferred content and slow down or block competitors’ content unless the competitor or the customer pays a premium. This would make the internet no different from a cable TV subscription (like the cable TV subscription I cancelled last year over a dispute with Spectrum, my monopoly provider) and would significantly raise the price of internet access. Ever since we cut the cord, my household is now paying for a subscription to Netflix. It may be that we continue to pay our monthly fee to Netflix, along with a monthly fee to Spectrum to actually deliver our Netflix movies to us. I certainly understand why Spectrum, Comcast, AT&T, Verizon, and other providers would want to recapture us cord-cutters. But given that these are, for the most part monopolies or oligopolies working in collusion — and in many cases they’ve prevented municipalities from offering competing services — consumers are essentially paying increasingly higher rent for increasingly worse service.
But there’s a larger issue here, and it has to do with the U.S. Constitution. The First Amendment states:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press…
On the other hand, corporations have wide latitude to control or restrict speech. For instance, in 2003, Stephen Downs, a peace activist in Albany, NY, was arrested at Crossgates Mall for wearing a t-shirt that read, “Give Peace a Chance/Peace on Earth” to protest the US war in Iraq and refusing to take it off. (His son, wearing a matching t-shirt, took his off and was not arrested.) Although New York State has similar free speech protections to the U.S. Constitution, the judge in the case, Downs v. Town of Guilderland, dismissed the suit, thus upholding the right of the mall to police speech on its property.
Internet service providers unconstrained by FCC neutrality regulations can similarly police speech using their “property.” Corporations are not the government, and there are no protections against the corporate quashing of free expression. The current administration has already wielded its power to reward friends, punish enemies, and outsource its propaganda functions to favored media corporations Sinclair and Fox, which now serve as informal right-wing government broadcasting networks. Without the Fairness Doctrine, which expired in 1986 under the Reagan Administration, no media company need broadcast an opinion its owners do not like. Without Net Neutrality, no ISP need deliver an internet site that its owners do not like. More likely, the ISPs will do what some have done already with their cable networks — deliver Fox for free while charging a premium for its more centrist rivals. In other words, propaganda will be free. Dissenting opinions will cost extra.
I don’t know how the end of Net Neutrality will affect this site. My administrator has assured me that it will primarily affect streaming services that consume a large amount of bandwidth. I am not so sure. The law offers no protection from “shopping mall rules,” in which private corporations, not required to observe free speech protections enshrined in the US or state constitutions, slow or block dissenting voices. My year-long war with Spectrum, my sole provider, may come back to haunt me. According to my husband, this site is already blocked in China. A year ago, I stayed in a hotel that used “family-friendly” blocking software, and it blocked this site which, albeit sometimes political, is safe for work and children. Unfortunately, what that meant was not only could no one at the hotel view my site, but also I couldn’t access the site to add new blog posts. If Spectrum decides to block me, I will have to update in the months that I’m in Portugal (which will probably increase drastically as a result) or take advantage of the municipal hotspots set up by the City of New York. In the future, you may very well find me sitting in a lawn chair on Second Avenue in the East Village, updating this blog. And if you live in the U.S., you may have to get creative to find my site — it may be that your home internet provider blocks or slows it, but your mobile provider does not. I’m also planning to publish my travel articles as an e-book in 2018, which will provide another means of accessing those pieces.
So what to do, given that this government seems dead-set on ramming through these highly unpopular measures? Number one is to defeat every single one of the administration’s supporters in the next election, less than a year away. In the meantime, know that you will likely be inundated with pro-administration propaganda and have a great deal more difficulty accessing dissenting voices. Number two is to support those dissenting voices. If this were a true free-market economy, a “free speech” ISP would suddenly materialize to make a variety of content, from Netflix movies to political websites, available on an equal basis, everywhere in the country. If that happens, join the stampede to them and away from the corrupt, high-cost-low-quality legacy ISPs that lobbied against Net Neutrality. And if that doesn’t happen (hint: it probably won’t, though I don’t know what the likes of Google and Amazon, who have a lot to lose, have in terms of contingency plans), support municipal Wi-Fi and defeat politicians who’ve sought to prevent municipalities from setting up public Wi-Fi. As taxpayers, we paid in multiple ways for monopoly ISPs to lay the cables and fiber. What the end of Net Neutrality tells us is that it’s time to take back these important means of communication in the modern age.