This Sure Feels Like the Beginning of the End of Net Neutrality

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Today, Trump’s new FCC chairman went to town on net neutrality and decided that four companies (AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile and Comcast) have a total pass to divide up the internet. Trump’s pick, Ajit Pai, decided not to pursue former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler’s inquiry into whether or not zero-rating unfairly favored certain companies. Zero-rating is the practice of having some streaming music and video services not count against your data plan. Neutrality advocates warn that such programs might lead to service providers essentially carving up the internet, and in their quadrants they will pick the winners and the losers, which services and sites to incentivize and which to discourage.

Four identical letters went to the four above-mentioned companies today, and the FCC explained their reasoning for dropping the inquiries thus:

These free-data plans have proven to be popular among consumers, particularly low-income Americans, and have enhanced competition in the wireless marketplace. Going forward, the Federal Communications Commission will not focus on denying Americans free data. Instead, we will concentrate on expanding broadband deployment and encouraging innovative service offerings.

Though the way the FCC has chosen to phrase their position may sound good on the face—exploiting the popularity of “free data” with “low-income Americans,” for example—a cursory look at what else the FCC’s done today eliminates any possibility that they actually care about low-income Americans accessing the internet. The FCC also dealt a blow to Lifeline, a program which would’ve granted registered households a $9.95-monthly credit with which to purchase broadband internet at. Nine companies would’ve been able to join in the funds (ba-dum-ch) and had already been approved, but the FCC just revoked their access and might have as many as eight more companies on the chopping block. According to reporting done by the Washington Post:

“The most obvious fact in our society is that high-speed Internet is astronomically expensive for the middle-class and down,” said Gene Kimmelman, president of the consumer advocacy group Public Knowledge. “So in any way limiting the Lifeline program, at this moment in time, exacerbates the digital divide. It doesn’t address it in any positive way.”

And:

By stopping companies such as Kajeet from accessing the Lifeline program, Pai may be signaling his intention to apply more restrictions to the Lifeline program, policy analysts said. One such restriction could be a strict cap on the program’s budget, which is indirectly funded through fees in the bills of telephone customers.

So, nope. It’s got nothing to do with “free data” or healing the divide. It’s got to do with corporations and their now-unimpeded plans to profit off both consumers and content creators, streaming service providers and whoever else they can make a buck off of. The reason we regulate the internet to assure neutrality is so we don’t wind up with a dystopia where a company can buy incentivized speed or priority, thus incentivizing consumers to use one service over another. Should this truly be an indication of the FCC’s direction over the next four years, it will impact independent websites and services as the dystopia expands.

That means websites catering to smaller, less profitable communities (like queers) will be, in my opinion, pretty immediately disincentivized. It could really hurt sites like ours! And if the government follows through on some of Trump’s ideas about how the internet should work (as in, we must close it up, that darn internet!), the actual government aided by giant corporatons could begin communities of resistance, the free press and (once again) queers. Net neutrality is a queer issue. The fact that Verizon isn’t slowing down traffic to our site and speeding it up to, oh, I dunno, Fox News’s coverage of LGBT issues and people because Fox has the money to pay them to, is a product of net neutrality.

In my opinion, today marks the day that they start to dismantle it.

Staff Writer for Autostraddle, Part-time Faculty at The New School (teaching digital storytelling), Managing Editor for Scholar & Feminist Online at Barnard Center for Research On Women. Follow me on Twitter @AEOsworth or on Instagram, also @AEOsworth.

A.E. has written 539 articles for us.

16 Comments

  1. Thank you for compiling this upsetting information so concisely and intelligently. This is an unsettling reality check and I am so grateful you are willing to stomach reading through the lines and I am willing to pay you to keep doing so. I hope many many others will too <3

  2. I’ve been 100% expecting this for a long time. As I said on FB the other day, the SINGLE biggest threat to authoritarianism is unrestricted knowledge and communication amongst the masses – this is how the Arab Spring happened in 2011, why marriage equality and other LGBTQ rights gained ground so quickly, why every single Women’s March far exceeded expected numbers last week, etc. etc.

    I had an argument with my dad who thinks I’m being hysterical about it, and I’m like, you don’t get it – of course nobody’s going to “shut down” the Internet, they’re just going to turn it into the same thing as TV, where a few big corporations pay money to feed whatever messages they want to the masses.

  3. It’s crazy how in the 70s we were able to get land line classified as utility, but we can’t with the Internet. Also of note, companies like Verizon love to use this classification of utility to take government subsidies to help pay for expansion and repairs to the internet optics(like fiber optic cable for your neighborhood) but then says they are information service provider when FCC tries to classify them as a utility.

    I think it would be also important to mention that carriers and now the Trump administration isn’t a fan of municipal broadband, because it’s anti-competitive or something of the sort. What they mean by that is they are offering better and faster internet service at the same or lower prices and they don’t want to lose their monopoly. Also, most if not all internet providers aren’t a fan of Google Fiber, for the same reason as municipal broadband. That and broadband and cable companies usually make the top 10 list of who spends the most on lobbying per year.

    • I think that is part of there point, they don’t want anything to be recognizable. They are trying to cause controversy, and chaos and discord. If they create enough of it, it can cause a version of divide and conquer. No one knows what way to turn, or where to look, and at the end of the day they can use the confusion to do what they want with no consequences because everyone is so busy looking everywhere else.

      • That’s scary 🙁
        Would it be worth those of us outside the US promoting this site and other sites we wish to preserve (in a non-annoying way, obviously, and to people who might benefit from them) in order to boost traffic numbers? Assuming these are faceless corporations interested solely in numbers rather than bigots who don’t want to support LGBT content. And naively assuming they won’t just slow down anything which provides a rival to businesses they own themselves (to me that’s one of the scariest bits of this whole thing: the conflict of interest)

        I hate how selfish this whole thing is making me but I’d hate to lose sites I love as well.

  4. This is actually one of the issues I’m most scared of, but one I feel is most likely to incite the masses in outrage. Bread and circuses, right? In a lot of ways, the internet has become both. It entertains, nourishes, and sustains us; from many walks of life. Hopefully, it’ll be a bridge too far or at least a rallying cry.

  5. I think it will be really important in the coming days and months and years to teach people how to set up a VPN, possibly use Tor as a browser, and essentially anonymize their internet presence. Net Neutrality and surveillance go hand in hand, and it hurts my soul to have vulnerable people not know how to secure their browsing. Who knows, if the FCC marks Autostraddle as something to slow traffic to, why wouldn’t the next step for “religious freedom” be to track who tries to access autostraddle?

    I know I’m being a little tinfoil hat here, but the level of paranoia that has been proven at least somewhat true these days has me trying to batten down the hatches.

    • No need to feel as though you are being paranoid. These are some of the tactics that Authoritarians have used for centuries to undermine, divide and control large groups of people. If these people are as bent on Totalitarianism as I’m inclined to think they are, then this and tactics like this, are the way to achieve their aims.

  6. Face Book had tried to bring something like this to India; a service called Free Basics that would give some services free to people. And the advocacy was the same; in the name of increasing access to the poor. There was an outcry from everybody who wasn’t Mark Zuckerberg (there were ads and op-eds in favour from him). And, India’s Telecom Regulatory Board TRAI asked people for opinion and received hundreds of thousands of comments from people who didn’t want it. Eventually, they decided not to approve Free Basics in favour of Net Neutrality (there was something about equality and constitution there I think).

    Now, a person of Indian origin (from the name I assumed, though I may be wrong) is trying to ruin it for US Americans. 🙁

    You know… the US govt. and admin seems to be discrete in taking away the freedoms. On the one hand, they create distractions (in some cases equally damaging ones like the refugee ban, but also some that are just Trump fights with celebrities or random rants) and on other, they quietly enact laws to erode protections.

    It is possible that as soon as such measures become well known, there will be protests and the government/courts would stay such orders. This order will not affect just independent websites. It will affect corporations as well. And folks who are not quite as big on money such as Instagram or twitter.

    Even so, it is best to prepare and beat them. Coz if people can survive Rome, Crusades, colonialism and Nazi Germany, and come out of these more free, then the current US and world can too!

    –>That’s my probably unwanted opinion and two cents from the other side of the world.

    My thoughts and words are with you!

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