After years of battling, activists defending “net neutrality” should stop asserting themselves as an organic movement to give voice to the proverbial “little guy.” These activists have either chosen sides or been commandeered by Big Tech companies in a high-stakes clash of titans.
In simple terms, net neutrality is the principle that all legal internet traffic should be treated the same and not blocked or degraded by the Internet Service Provider. In 2015, the Obama-era Federal Communications Commission enshrined its version of net neutrality into law using a heavy-handed and outdated regulatory framework: Title II of the Communications Act of 1934.
The regulation only applied to internet service providers and was not surprisingly favored by Big Tech companies seeking to gain a competitive advantage over ISPs, lock in their market power, and pad their bottom lines. Now that the FCC, under Chairman Ajit Pai, is about to free ISPs from Title II, the fight has intensified –turning downright nasty at times.
In their quest to preserve and expand market share, Big Tech companies have shifted their messaging strategy, claiming net neutrality is simply about protecting First Amendment free speech rights. In this sloppy conflation, net neutrality activists are willfully behind the times and misrepresenting reality.
Google, Netflix, Facebook, and other tech giants continue to brand themselves as altruistic defenders of the internet and champions of the ordinary internet user. But some of them are contenders to be the world’s first corporation with a trillion-dollar market capitalization, and achieving such often by gobbling up innovative upstarts in the process. For many people, Google is not merely a search engine and Facebook is not just a social media site—they are the Internet.
So, who is really in the driver’s seat when it comes maintaining neutrality?
Despite the charge that ISPs are about to block or favor content depending on their bottom line, the real gatekeepers of the Internet today are the Googles and Facebooks of the world. Just last month, Twitter found itself taking heat from liberals who wanted it to do more to contain hate speech and fake news and conservatives who warned this would simply provide a pretext for censoring speech that the company did not like.
As far back as 18 months ago, Facebook found itself in the hot seat for blocking news content with a conservative bent. It has blocked Black Lives Matter content too. These are real-world examples of corporate power over content, not hypothetical abuses net neutrality activists have pinned on ISPs.
In essence, net neutrality activists who claim to be checking the power of ISPs are actually just doing the bidding of Big Tech companies, which are using state-of-the-art communications tactics to prevail in getting free and unfettered access to the broadband networks built by ISPs. Amazon, which is quickly obliterating traditional retailing, stated this in its recent 10Q filing.
When net neutrality activists swamped the FCC with comments last spring, complete with thousands of fake individual accounts combined with racist and threatening rhetoric, it was no spontaneous populist revolt, but part of well-funded and methodical campaign underwritten by Big Tech.
Google’s parent company, Alphabet, Facebook, Amazon, Twitter, and Netflix have spent over $33,000,000 this year in lobbying. While that is a considerable amount of money even by Washington’s standards, Google has also contributed generously to an array of groups to advance net neutrality’s appeal, including the Center for American Progress, Center for Democracy and Technology, Consumer Action, Consumer Federation of America, and Public Knowledge. This same kind of engagement has been on display with Facebook, which is working with a similar collection of liberal-leaning third parties.
Their bottomless pockets are at work in supporting a roster of spokespeople to shore up the flawed dichotomy between so-called evil ISPs and first amendment champions from Silicon Valley, and more broadly the survival of the Internet. For example, Gigi Sohn serves as a policy fellow and blogger for net neutrality supporter Mozilla. Similarly, Alyssa Milano, a celebrity activist, is affiliated with mobile credit payment company Square.
Beyond just giving money to likeminded people and organizations for today’s fight, Big Tech apparently assumes a strategy to implement message control. The most notorious example of this occurred last fall when the New America Foundation, funded in part by Google, gave the ax to ten people involved in its Open Markets initiative, which had been pushing for more rigorous anti-trust enforcement against Google and other tech giants.
Additionally, the Day of Action over the summer, touted as a spontaneous eruption of millions of internet defenders, was actually a well-coordinated campaign by Silicon Valley companies. Looking ahead, tech giants are building a permanent thought leadership infrastructure by funding and embedding policy fellows at organizations.
Don’t be fooled, the campaign to keep Title II rules in place in the name of preserving “net neutrality” is not a movement of idealists fighting ISPs to preserve the ordinary internet user’s access to information. It is an extension of Big Tech’s well-funded and well-coordinated campaign to use the ISPs’ infrastructure to increase their already dominant positions online to a degree never seen in the history of communications.