Net Neutrality And Democracy

Net Neutrality, a rule presently enforced by the Federal Communications Commission, means that your Internet Service Provider (ISP) must give equal treatment to all the internet traffic it carries. It can’t speed, slow, or block content based on its own business priorities, or any other factors. Ajit Pai, the Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission and a former Counsel for Verizon, wants to repeal this rule.

The FCC votes next Thursday. What is at stake is not - or not only - whether you will have faster access to The Disney Channel than to Netflix. It is whether there will be authoritarian, partisan control of the information you rely on for determining your evolving worldview, your civic behavior, and your vote. In other words: our democratic society. That sounds like hyperbole. It’s not.

There’s a context to this vote. To dispense with Pai’s disingenuous justification of repeal, Net Neutrality is not an interference with market forces. It is the level playing field on which an honest market, with equal access for all, plays out. Information choice goes to the core of our present politics. President Trump’s demagogic attacks on media outlets that criticize him, and his descriptions of traditional, fact-checked, responsible media as “fake news,” are abnormal and unseemly. His statements that more favorable media coverage should be a qualifying condition for FCC licensure, and his threats to shut down media that criticize him, are deeply alarming. His attempts to make good on those threats are unconstitutional, and warning signals of creeping authoritarianism. Yet the Republican-controlled Congress, and institutions such as the FCC, seem unwilling to stop him.

In the absence of Net Neutrality, media companies and ISPs, with good reason to believe that their licenses are in the balance, may well want to appease an administration that has made direct threats to their businesses. It’s not inconceivable, nor even far-fetched, that they would strike an unspoken or explicit agreement to give faster access to outlets that report favorably on Trump. The Nation throttled down; full speed ahead to Breitbart!

Control of the media is, of course, a hallmark of authoritarian states. But that’s not how we do it here, right? We have a long history of respect for the role of an independent press as a check on government, backed up by the First Amendment.

Indeed we do, but it may not matter. Our last election cycle saw freelance right-wing provocateurs plant anarchic nonsense in the internet hive-mind; and this nonsense, on breaking through to the mainstream, was cynically marketed by one of the formerly-respectable parties and the Trump campaign. We saw a foreign power, Russia, create fake Facebook postings that favored Donald Trump and spread lies about Hillary Clinton, postings that garnered hundreds of millions of views. Russia spread more lies through a subversive US media operation, RT (Russia Today.) We saw Wikileaks attempting to influence the election by publishing confidential information stolen from the DNC by the Russians – much of it innocuous, but the very fact of its private nature suggesting, to many, nefarious activity. The Wikileaks dump may well have mixed authentic documents with Kremlin fakes – to what degree, we still don’t know. And all of these mendacious operations bled through to editorials in the traditional right-wing press, to Fox News, even to the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page. Our elections were tainted by a masterful orchestration of Soviet-style deceit and managed disorientation.

Ever since the Internet opened to the public in the early 1990s, it has been an experiment in radically democratic access to broadcast media, an environment in which anyone can write a blog, host a podcast, and disseminate news, real or fake. Expanded media democracy was supposed to bring us expanded political democracy. Instead, we are watching as conspiracists, paranoids, foreign agents, and masters of technology are harnessed in the service of interests antithetical to democracy. In the very debate over ending Net Neutrality, we’ve seen public comments hijacked by millions of automated bots, in an attempt to make the repeal position seem far more popular than it actually is.

We can’t, and shouldn’t, censor the Internet. But at least – so far – we haven’t been steered away from making our own judgements about the reliability of information before we even type in a web address. Chairman Pai’s machinations would change all that; and Trump takes for granted that the purpose of government departments is to serve and protect him, very much including the FCC, which awards the broadcast licenses. When we live in a Fox News/Breitbart/Mike Cernovich ecosystem, with the fact-checkers walled off, what chance will any nonpartisan, objective truth have?