Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Ajit Pai’s Giant Middle Finger

Cecilia Kang, New York Times:

The Federal Communications Commission announced on Tuesday that it planned to dismantle landmark regulations that ensure equal access to the internet, clearing the way for companies to charge more and block access to some websites.

The proposal, put forward by the F.C.C. chairman, Ajit Pai, is a sweeping repeal of rules put in place by the Obama administration. The rules prohibited high-speed internet service providers from blocking or slowing down the delivery of websites, or charging extra fees for the best quality of streaming and other internet services for their subscribers. Those limits are central to the concept called net neutrality.

Aside from media and internet conglomerates, who wants this? If you aren’t a shareholder or executive of one of those gigantic companies, why would you find anything at all to like about this proposal? It’s an anti-consumer, anti-competitive, and anti-American proposal that benefits very few at the expense of many.

Ajit Pai published a statement (PDF) on the FCC website, and it’s offensively misleading:

For almost twenty years, the Internet thrived under the light-touch regulatory approach established by President Clinton and a Republican Congress. This bipartisan framework led the private sector to invest $1.5 trillion building communications networks throughout the United States. And it gave us an Internet economy that became the envy of the world.

But in 2015, the prior FCC bowed to pressure from President Obama. On a party-line vote, it imposed heavy-handed, utility-style regulations upon the Internet. That decision was a mistake. It’s depressed investment in building and expanding broadband networks and deterred innovation.

Pai conflates the regulation of the internet with regulation of internet service providers. If he’s doing this unintentionally, he’s too stupid to run the FCC. But that clearly isn’t the case: he isn’t stupid, and I fully believe he’s conflating the two intentionally. Regulating the internet really does sound like a bad thing, but regulating Verizon and Comcast probably sounds pretty reasonable to most people — most people hate the way their internet service provider treats them. His claim that the internet is being “micromanaged” is an outright lie.

Moreover, his complaint that net neutrality regulations were passed under partisan terms is utterly ridiculous given that his proposal is also expected to pass along partisan lines — only this time, in a way that’s favourable to him.

Finally, his claim that Title II regulations have reduced broadband investment by ISPs is also a lie.

The Wall Street Journal also published an op-ed today from Pai in which he more publicly makes his case:

This is why I’m proposing today that my colleagues at the Federal Communications Commission repeal President Obama’s heavy-handed internet regulations. Instead the FCC simply would require internet service providers to be transparent so that consumers can buy the plan that’s best for them. And entrepreneurs and other small businesses would have the technical information they need to innovate. The Federal Trade Commission would police ISPs, protect consumers and promote competition, just as it did before 2015. Instead of being flyspecked by lawyers and bureaucrats, the internet would once again thrive under engineers and entrepreneurs.

The internet is thriving under engineers and entrepreneurs; retaining Title II classification would allow small and independent creators to compete against established players. Repealing that classification, as Pai is proposing, would allow internet service providers create their own marketplaces with better service going to the richest and best-connected websites.

FTC Commissioner Terrell McSweeny took to Twitter to dispute the notion that the FTC could be able to adequately protect consumers:

So many things wrong here, like even if @FCC does this @FTC still won’t have jurisdiction. But even if we did, most discriminatory conduct by ISPs will be perfectly legal.

This news is dropping today and the text of the proposal will be released tomorrow because it’s the start of the Thanksgiving long weekend in the United States. Pai is counting on your outrage being buried under enough turkey and booze by Monday that you’ll forget about it. You can’t.

I’m Canadian, so it sounds like I shouldn’t care about this, but I do. I have to. The internet economy that is “the envy of the world”, in Pai’s words, is mostly an American one, so regulations that affect those companies affect the world, especially considering how weak American anti-trust regulations tend to be.

Consider that Comcast is working on a Netflix competitor, and that they also own NBCUniversal. It’s not hard to imagine an environment in which Comcast charges Netflix an extremely high rate to carry NBCUniversal TV shows and movies while also requiring Netflix to pay to be in their “fast lane” of internet service.

Comcast could also conceivably offer their streaming service at a reduced rate, or not count it against monthly bandwidth caps. In 2014, Kate Cox of the Consumerist reported that there were plenty of well-populated regions in the United States where Comcast had no broadband competition. As of last year, around 78% of Americans had a choice of zero or one provider for broadband of 25 Mbps or higher. In regions where Comcast is the only option, they could choose to offer NBC and MSNBC at a reduced rate on the web, but charge higher prices to view CNN or Fox News. If you didn’t like this, you could lodge an FTC complaint; but, as long as your ISP were being transparent about these practices, it wouldn’t be deceptive and may not even necessarily be predatory.

As cable companies increasingly become providers of television, home and business internet, home phone, cellular, and streaming services as well as making and distributing movies, music, and TV shows — including the news — this proposal becomes increasingly toxic. Combine this proposal with other moves Pai’s FCC has made and it’s a recipe for preserving the interests of the biggest businesses and media entities, and reducing competition from upstart and lesser-funded businesses.

You can — and should — hammer the FCC with your complaints, calls, and feedback on this. But be prepared for the long haul on this, because no matter which way Pai’s proposal goes, there’s a bigger story here. Karl Bode, Techdirt:

Supporters of net neutrality also need to understand that the broadband industry’s assault on net neutrality is a two-phase plan. Phase one is having an unelected bureaucrat like Ajit Pai play bad cop with his vote to dismantle the rules. Phase two will be to gather support for a net neutrality law that professes to be a “long-standing solution to this tiresome debate.” In reality, this law will be written by ISP lobbyists themselves as an attempt to codify federal apathy on this subject into law. These weaker protections will be designed to be so loophole-filled as to effectively be useless, preventing the FCC from revisiting the subject down the road. A solution that isn’t — for a problem they themselves created.

It’s understandable that the public and press is tired of this debate after fifteen years. But instead of hand wringing and apathy, we should be placing the blame for this endless hamster wheel at the feet of those responsible for it: Comcast, AT&T, Verizon and Charter, and the army of lawmakers, economists, fauxcademics, and other hired policy tendrils willing to sell out the health of the internet — and genuinely competitive markets — for a little extra holiday cash. Folks that honestly believe they can lie repeatedly with zero repercussion, and hide a giant middle finger behind the gluten-free stuffing and Aunt Martha’s cardboard-esque pumpkin pie.

Pai is carrying water for ISPs and their paid interests in that damn mug of his which, incidentally, is also big enough to hide the middle finger he’s giving Americans. If you live in the United States, it’s up to you to tell him to put his mug down and start working for your interests, instead of for ISPs and against you. You deserve better.

I’m encouraged to see that “net neutrality” is a trending topic on Twitter, too. It’s something that everyone should be concerned about, regardless of age, political affiliation, or interest in technology. It’s important to spread the word on this to everyone you know: explain what net neutrality is, why it’s so important to preserve Title II rules, and talk about what normal people can do about it. Everyone deserves better than what Pai’s has proposed.