As fears cloud net neutrality debate, is common ground being overlooked?

The complexities of net neutrality don't exactly lend themselves to easy dinner-time conversation. Many Americans are taking sides as a gut reaction to abstract fears, without exploring the nuances of the debate. 

Kyle Grillot/Reuters
Supporters of net neutrality, like these protesters gathered in Los Angeles on Nov. 28, fear that a relaxation of FCC regulations will grant telecoms sweeping powers to control the flow of information in inequitable ways.

When Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai was discussing the impact of social media on American values at a luncheon in the nation’s capital on Wednesday afternoon, he only briefly alluded to his own negative experiences online over the past week.

Last Tuesday, Chairman Pai unveiled a plan that would virtually dismantle the FCC’s long-standing principles of internet governance known as net neutrality. In various forms for more than a decade, these principles, also referred to as the “open internet,” have put a regulatory check on the way high-speed internet providers could control the flow of information through their networks.

His announcement last week, however, unleashed the kind of vitriol that has become a recurring feature of American political discourse – especially since the innovations of the digital age. “Harassment. Threats. Unfiltered rage. The past few days, I’ve seen a lot of that – much more than I or my family would like,” Pai told a gathering sponsored by The Media Institute, a nonprofit communications research foundation in Washington, D.C.

The FCC chairman, a President Trump appointee and the first Indian-American to hold the office, was inundated with death threats and racist taunts, even as the names of his children were posted online.

“And this vitriol seems to reflect the growing feeling that America today is a meaner, coarser place than it used to be, especially when it comes to politics,” continued Pai, who also extolled the positive social effects of social media, such as the recent #MeToo groundswell that has begun to alter the nation’s workplaces. “This unprecedented medium for collaboration and connecting people feels like it’s dividing us and driving us apart.”

It’s an irony that has in many ways tempered the promises of the information revolution. And as industry experts and others note, it has also tended to frame the net neutrality debate into stark and simplistic Manichean terms – terms that often obscure both the deeper values that may underlie both points of views, as well as the potential to find points of agreement.

A 'crudely abstract' debate

Despite the various self-interests and ideological differences that often underlie the opposing sides of the net neutrality debate, many business scholars note there is an essential symbiosis that locks the telecommunications giants to the end users and content providers who use it to deliver their services.

Those who own and maintain the architecture of the internet are necessarily integrated into a relationship with those who use it to communicate and exchange information. Experts sometimes call this a “two-sided marketplace” unique to networks: each side can only grow, make money, and innovate along with the other.

“On one level, this debate has become most crudely abstract – which is, in turn, driving part of the political divide, making it less informed and more political,” says Doug Brake, senior analyst for telecom policy at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington, D.C.

One such abstraction is rooted in fears about the potential power various players might be able to wield on what now could be considered the most integral civic architecture the county has ever known. Like the advent of electricity in the early 20th century, experts say, high-speed internet has become central to nearly all aspects of the US economy, as well as education, healthcare, and the daily if not hourly rhythms of most Americans’ lives.

“There is substantial confusion in public debates about this issue,” says Brett Frischmann, professor of law, business, and economics at Villanova University in Pennsylvania. “One side frames net neutrality as heavy government regulation that inevitably involves government micro-management of internet activities.”

“Another side frames it as minimal government regulation aimed primarily at leveling the playing field for edge providers to deliver services to consumers,” Professor Frischmann continues. “Both sides are partially correct but incomplete, and the part that's missing undermines the positions taken.”

Choosing ideological teams

In general, Republicans like Pai have lined up with the nation’s telecommunications giants, including Verizon, AT&T, and Comcast. They not only oppose the net neutrality principles that requires them to treat all data flowing over their networks equally, they are particularly galled by the Obama administration’s reclassification of high-speed internet as a so-called Title II public utility according to federal law. As such, this gives the government broad authority – a “blank check,” opponents say – to go so far as to regulate the services and prices internet providers can charge.

“Title II is potentially heavy government regulation,” Frischmann says. “The Open Internet Order aimed to lessen the weight, to be ‘light-touch’ because the FCC exercised substantial forbearance. It does not involve government micromanagement, and it does not inevitably lead to government micromanagement. But the possibility of regulatory creep lurks.”

Democrats have in many ways lined up with big tech companies such as Amazon, Apple, Google, and other content providers, on the other hand. They have generally supported net neutrality principles in the Open Internet Order, which prevent internet service providers from blocking or discriminating against lawful content. Most significantly, perhaps, they also forbade internet gatekeepers from offering any paid prioritization to the more wealthy content providers.

The logic of net neutrality, too, was rooted in fears about the potential power that big telecoms could potentially wield if they were able to control the flow of information on the internet without constraints.

But just as open internet advocates argue that the FCC would exercise substantial forbearance while wielding Title II power, industry advocates argue that service providers, too, would be constrained by both market pressures, public vigilance, and self-regulating industry standards.

While the Republican-led FCC is planning to scrap net neutrality when it meets next month, Pai said new regulations would simply require internet service providers to be transparent about any actions they take to control the flow of information – or charge additional fees for a prioritized fast lane for those who can afford it.

“Make no doubt, the circulation of this order will bring the ‘sky is falling’ crowd to the fore, and they will foretell a day when websites will be blocked, content censored and internet access controlled by ISP overlords,” said Joan Marsh, executive vice president of regulatory affairs for AT&T, in a statement last week. “All major ISPs have publicly committed to preserving an open internet and the proposed transparency rules will require that all ISPs clearly and publicly articulate their internet practices. Any ISP that is so foolish as to seek to engage in gatekeeping will be quickly and decisively called out.”

But this is not the only concern for those who have long championed net neutrality rules. The companies who run the internet and provide broadband service are also content providers in many cases.  

“The only way for customers to access our service was through either Comcast or Verizon,” says David Friend, chief executive officer and co-founder of Wasabi Technologies, a cloud storage company based in Boston. “If either of those guys had decided to compete with us and were not obligated to treat our traffic the same as theirs, they could have just slowed down our traffic and put us out of business.”

“Nobody would care so much about net neutrality if Comcast, Verizon, and the like, were prohibited from providing backup, or movies, or games, or anything else that runs over the internet,” continues Mr. Friend, who also founded the data protection company Carbonite. “But that is not the case today, and these companies aspire to offer ever broader services in competition with their customers. Investors will pull back from any startups that look like they could get in the sights of Verizon or Comcast, innovation will suffer, and, ultimately, the economy will suffer – with ill effects for all, including, ultimately, Verizon and Comcast.”

The new FCC order, however, would refer such anti-competitive moves to another regulatory agency, the Federal Trade Commission, Pai said last week.

Even so, fears about the economic and cultural power of the internet gatekeepers go beyond such potential anti-competitive behavior, advocates say.

Recognizing common ground

“Net neutrality is essential for free inquiry, democratic debate, and political dissent,” says Kevin Howley, professor of media studies at DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind. “If advocates of Title II repeal have their way, any semblance of these more egalitarian values will be ruthlessly pushed aside in favor of a top-down model of political communication and cultural production.”

“In an era when much of our political discourse takes place in digital space, we can ill-afford the loss of the horizontal communication made possible by an open internet,” continues Professor Howley. “Likewise, local, grassroots cultural expression, which in recent years has enjoyed something of a renaissance, will once again be stifled by dominant cultural institutions.”

“Reconciliation is possible – both sides value innovation,” says Howley. “This bit of common ground might provide the basis for resolving the debate.”

Pai was almost wistful as he lamented the deteriorating values of civility on Wednesday, citing the depersonalized and virtually anonymous social space enabled by the internet – a space whose well-ordered flourishing he is charged with protecting.

“But while we’re becoming connected digitally, we can’t allow our nation of 326 million to become disconnected from each other,” Pai closed his speech on Wednesday. “We need to see our fellow citizens as real people with real strengths and frailties, not as abstract online avatars. We need to speak with each other eye-to-eye in order to understand each other’s values, not snipe at each other remotely in order to demean. And when we disagree, we need to do so civilly – to see each other as people aspiring for a better country but envisioning different paths for getting there.”

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