April 20, 2017
The internet—in all its sprawling glory—is indispensable.
It isn’t an overstatement to say that a functional democracy requires a robust internet that reflects a government commitment to the free flow of information. When you don’t have that, you get Recep Erdogan’s Turkey, with an internet that has increasingly come under government control, allowing Erdogan to block any info he deems critical of him. (It’s no coincidence that President Trump, who has said that the press is “the enemy of the people,” congratulated Erdogan on his recent electoral win, a win after which Erdogan immediately moved to gut any check on his power.) When you don’t have that, you get the Great Firewall of China, where commerce still thrives but vital sources of information, particularly those critical of the government, are suppressed.
At least at this point, Trump hasn’t moved to suppress access to the internet or to material that criticizes him, However, nearly every move that Donald Trump’s Federal Communications Chairman (FCC), Ajit Pai, is making is going to make your internet more expensive, less accessible, and less committed to the free flow of information. And that’s incredibly dangerous.
First, the FCC is going to completely eviscerate net neutrality. Net neutrality is an important cornerstone of the internet as we know it—it requires your internet service provider (ISP) to treat all traffic the same, regardless of what type of data it is or where it comes from. Your ISP can’t charge you more for traffic from a competitor, and it can’t block content it (or the government) doesn’t like.
In practical terms, this means that if your internet provider is xfinity, they can’t charge you more for watching a movie streaming at Amazon because they’re trying to get you to watch xfinity on-demand movies instead. They also can’t throttle, or slow down, that Amazon traffic in order to make you miserable enough to stop watching or shift to a product they own.
That scenario is annoying—and expensive—but it isn’t nearly as frightening as this one:
Net neutrality protects the type of content you can access. Your ISP can’t block, say, information about nonprofit municipal broadband initiatives because it wants to promote its own for-profit services. Verizon can’t block you from anti-war sites or sites about LGBTQ youth or anything else it might somehow find objectionable. It doesn’t have to listen to the government if and when a President Trump no longer wants the Washington Post to exist and demands it be blocked.
Under Obama, the FCC made net neutrality a priority, and rightly so. If the internet is truly going to be available to all, it can’t become a place where only the wealthy can afford access to all types of content, and it can’t be a place where free expression is hampered. The Obama-era FCC did this by classifying ISPs as common carriers.
Telephone companies, back in the day, were common carriers. They had to let you call anyone, anywhere, and talk about anything. Classifying ISPs like that meant that they would be regulated roughly the same way we regulate things like the electric company or other public utilities. Everyone gets access, and you can use your internet to look at whatever you want, whenever you want.
This is critical. We have come to understand that everyone needs the internet, just as everyone needs electrical power or once needed a landline. Public utilities are highly regulated to ensure that costs stay consistent and consumer access stays maximized, and all but the most diehard libertarian free marketeers know this to be a good thing.
Broadband providers didn’t like the idea of being a common carrier very much and sued to stop the Obama-era prohibitions against traffic blocking and throttling. They lost, so the rules stood. Under Trump, though, net neutrality and other consumer protections are going to disappear, and the consequences are far greater than just needing to pay more for your internet.
Pai, a former lawyer for Verizon, made it immediately clear he’d reverse the net neutrality rules, instead just asking mega-ISPs like Verizon to pretty please promise in writing not to throttle or block traffic. (No, really—that’s actually his plan.) This stance is likely partly because Pai and Trump and their ilk loathe regulations generally, but is definitely because the rollback of these protections means the potential for massive profits for ISPs, who will be able to charge consumers more to access content and also charge companies that deliver content—think Google and Netflix—more money to get that content to you.
It also sets the stage for real repression: an internet that can easily be manipulated to only let approved content get to citizens.
Massive media consolidations over the last 30 years have meant that giant ISPs already own giant content providers. So, if you love MSNBC, owned by Comcast, but your internet service is provided by Verizon, you could actually find it impossible (or at least prohibitively expensive) to watch Rachel Maddow ever again after the collapse of net neutrality. Definitely worst of all, there would be nothing stopping your internet service provider from deciding that they could block access to information about abortions, or Russian influences on United States elections, or how to encrypt your personal communications. In short, rolling back net neutrality can both radically increase your costs and drastically decrease your access to necessary information.
Schools and libraries also take a huge hit if net neutrality disappears. Libraries aren’t exactly awash in money, so the idea they’d be able to pay for a “fast lane” so that their users could access, say, Google for research is an impossible one. For-profit content providers may also have little to no interest in allowing students to easily reach educational resources, instead shifting them to for-profit edutainment.
Of course, it should go without saying that poor people will disproportionately suffer when ISPs are allowed to throttle certain types of content and charge more for other types of content.
Unfortunately, the Trump era will do a lot more damage than just eradicating the principles of an open internet. Trump signed a bill rolling back proposed privacy protections that would have required your internet service provider to get permission before selling your personal details, including your browsing history. Your ISP knows an incredible amount about your habits, thanks to being able to observe all of your travels across the internet, and it wants to sell those details to advertisers. (There’s nothing stopping them from providing that information to the government either.)
You can theoretically opt out of this, but it has proved ridiculously hard to figure out how. You can also block your internet service provider from tracking you by using a virtual private network (VPN), which essentially creates a private tunnel for your communications—one that your ISP can’t track. However, most reputable VPNs aren’t free—they tend to be subscription-based—which means you essentially need to have the ability to routinely spend money to keep your website visits private.
Finally, the Trump years are going to prove devastating to those people that are already far behind already in terms of their access to broadband internet. In urban areas, only 4 percent of residents lack access to what the government currently identifies as broadband-level speed: 25mbps. However, 39 percent of rural residents lack access to internet at that speed. Pai has pledged, in theory, to work to close this digital divide, but his preferred actions focus on increasing rural access to broadband internet without ensuring its affordability. It’s great if you live in rural America and suddenly find out that gigabit-class internet is available to your tiny town, but that’s meaningless if that internet would cost you $300 per month.
Pai has also disdained any actions that might help to close another digital divide: the gap in broadband access between the upper and middle classes and the poor. For many years, a program called Lifeline provided a credit to low-income consumers that they could use to purchase landline or mobile phone service. It was only in the last year, though, that the credit could be used to purchase broadband internet from nine different providers. In February, the FCC told those nine companies they could no longer provide services through Lifeline, which functionally means that households can’t use a Lifeline credit to buy internet services.
Read together, all of these steps signal the true views of Trump and Pai: The only people that deserve unfettered access to critical infrastructural services are the rich and the free flow of information isn’t important at all. As in China, commerce will flourish (it always does), but information won’t. That’s a heartbreakingly terrible, distinctly un-American, way to run a country, but here we are.