More likely than not, we will soon wave goodbye to net neutrality. Ajit Pai and his new FCC administration have made it clear they want to scrap the concept. An outcry from Silicon Valley’s leading companies last week, under the umbrella of the Internet Association, will have done little to dissuade Mr Pai, a former legal counsel at Verizon, from his path towards digital deregulation.
Mr Pai’s work is music to the ears of his former employer, and its counterparts in America’s telecommunications industry. It accounts for around a sixth of the nation’s economy and is dominated by just a handful of gigantic corporations.
Giving those firms free reign to close off, speed up or manipulate access to the Internet will be a disaster for millions of Americans–especially those in smaller, more rural areas, who already suffer risible services.
It will also torpedo the tech industry.
There is not a single company, profession or past-time that does not rely on reliable transfer of data. Farmers turn algorithms into higher yields. Students study and submit papers online. Emergency services respond to incidents reported in the digital world.
The high-tech industry, which employs around 12% of the American workforce and contributes 23% of its output, will be greatly harmed by the absence of net neutrality. Its leading brands will be chattel to the boardroom decisions of telcos that want a bigger slice of their sector. The voluntary statements with which Mr Pai wants to replace net neutrality legislation will do little, if anything, to override telcos’ instincts to serve their own share prices.
Mr Pai himself is something of a contradiction. Born in Buffalo but raised mostly in the small Kansas town of Parsons, he has said repeatedly that his philosophies are born of a desire to give connectivity to more rural Americans. That is why he wants telcos to act unencumbered, to compete more and offer better access.
This is nonsensical. Huge corporations, acting untethered from competition and data law, will create bigger monopolies and worse offerings for those in locations that do not present great opportunities for profit. Mr Pai knows this. He has been part of the telco lobbying establishment for years.
Mr Pai will also level the data playing field, giving telcos unfettered access to customers’ information. Silicon Valley sits on piles of data, he argues: why shouldn’t everyone.
He has a point. Firms like Google and Facebook process information on billions of people. And they’ve been quick to protect their own interests despite dubious public benefit. Uber, Airbnb and others in the “sharing economy” have done little to assuage fears of their own corporate greed, smashing through regulation and employment norms in their respective fields.
Tech firms, it could be argued, are crying wolf.
But two wrongs do not make a right. And it is unlikely that, put to a popular vote, ordinary Americans would hand their personal data over to firms that have repeatedly demonstrated a lack of interest in customer relations.
But net neutrality is a different matter. It affects every aspect of the digital world. And, should Mr Pai have his way, it will set the US back from other developed nations, like South Korea and Sweden, which have enshrined net neutrality in law.
No longer will access to the Internet be considered a utility–like roads, water and electricity–but a luxury, provided by telecommunications companies with omnipotent power over who does, and does not, receive it.
News of the move has been buried beneath North Korea’s sabre-rattling, and the debris of a megabomb–and for good reason. But when it comes to the American economy, nothing is more important than net neutrality. Its ouster will harm all industries, at a time when US economic dominance is as threatened as it has been in almost a century. Independent fiber networks are gaining popularity. But their ubiquity is a long way off.
President Donald Trump promised voters–many of them poor, rural Americans–that he would ‘drain the swamp’ of corruption and special interests in Washington DC. His FCC chairman’s moves, so obviously influenced by that swamp, will drain the digital hopes of millions of people across the country–and the potential of tech giants and startups alike.
Mr Pai trusts the telecommunications industry to do the right thing for America. That is a mistake of massive importance.