FCC chairman Ajit Pai is expected to repeal net neutrality today, bookending one of the most controversial topics ever to pass through the agency. The debate, which has included stolen identities, open letters and an ill-advised smack video by Pai himself, has exposed the seamier side of America’s lobby-heavy political process.
Having observed a firestorm of opposition Pai can credibly be criticized for having put corporate dollars above the public good. His vision of a deregulated Internet, where ISPs control what we view and how fast we view it, is a free market fantasy. Just as quasi-monopolies have done in countless other industries, America’s web providers will choke their customer base to increase profits. They must do so: consumers have no other choice and shareholders demand growth.
Under net neutrality Verizon was unable to favor its companies Yahoo and AOL over Google. Now it can strangle Google for access to its 147 million customers (Pai was once an in-house Verizon attorney, and joked yesterday that he was a shill for the firm).
Google will survive. More worrying is the effect Pai’s work will have on the media and free speech. The United States is governed by a President with little or no regard for press freedom. ISPs may now choose which outlets get access to readers. That could be a catastrophe for American liberty.
It is striking to this reporter how partisan the issue has become. Net neutrality is not a red or blue matter. It is a case for open democracy and fair treatment of ordinary customers. There is no reason for Republicans to oppose it. We are, of course, living in a polarized political world. Tech has played a key role in that. Net neutrality will do little to change it, drawing Internet users further apart at the whim of corporate profits.
It is sad to think that we may all soon be telling our children how the Internet was once seen as a universal tool. It is baffling to think that despite centuries of deregulated robber-baron economics, the FCC is about to hand control of the 20th century’s greatest invention to a tiny clique of companies. Today is a dark day for the web.