Something about the sudden mainstreaming of the Net Neutrality issue last year struck me as odd. Where the topic had been around for many years, it was mostly an issue that was discussed in techie circles. Why did it suddenly become so hot last year? In observing the way the FCC is handling the situation now, I am starting to wonder if the way the debate evolved was no accident. I have suspicions we have all been set up by a well thought out political manipulation.
It is very important to keep in mind that unlike many other countries, in the United States our government can not currently censor the Internet. For all the teeth-gnashing done last year, the fact is we HAVE Net Neutrality right now. No Internet provider did anything last year to threaten this state of Net Neutrality. So why the sudden thrusting of the Net Neutrality debate into the mainstream? The event that triggered the groundswell of Net Neutrality hoopla were some proposed new rules by the FCC. Yes, it was the FCC themselves that initiated a firestorm of media coverage of the topic, highlighted by viral videos produced by popular pseudo-news programs such as The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. To reiterate, it was not the Internet provider industry that threatened Net Neutrality last year, it was people’s fears that the FCC was was to give away Net Neutrality that started us down this road last April. Keep that in mind as you keep reading this article.
In a seemingly sudden reversal, now the FCC is proposing different rules that will classify Internet services under Title II of the 1934 Communication Act, an unprecedented action and seismic shift in the free and open nature of the Internet. Make no mistake about it, the FCC is about to engage in a historical naked power grab, simply making up authority where none is given in law. It is ludicrous to believe that a law written in 1934 could possibly be applied to something that didn’t truly exist until over 60 years later. It is not a fanciful notion to think that had the FCC proposed such an action at this time last year or in years prior, it would have been met with incredible resistance from anyone who cares about the potential censorship of the Internet. But this year, after approximately nine months of nearly constant Net Neutrality fear-mongering and a public proclamation from President Obama that he wants this action, it would appear that Title II classification has public support. The questions we must start to ask ourselves are that without the rules proposed by the FCC last year, would we have proposed Title II action this year? If it seems reasonable to think that one action resulted in the next, were these actions simply happenstance? And does Title II classification truly have public support?
While I have no inside information and I have no way to know for sure, it certainly feels like last year’s Net Neutrality “movement” was contrived. Based on my knowledge and observation of politics along with my extensive experience inside Internet culture from the beginning of its mainstreaming, I would certainly not be surprised if this entire sequence of events was orchestrated. The supposed “grassroots” feel of the Net Neutrality movement could have been wholly “astroturfed”. It would certainly explain how such a geeky topic suddenly went viral. The politics of technology isn’t exactly mainstream watercolor talk.
The really insidious aspect to the current Net Neutrality debate is that the proponents have done an artful job conflating the issue. There is no doubt that people want a free and open Internet. We do not want our Internet access to be restricted by our Internet providers. All the discussion of Net Neutrality in the last year has brought that concept into the mainstream. What is not so clear is whether people want the FCC, the agency responsible for the censorship of radio and TV, in charge of the Internet. As I mentioned in a previous article, the current Net Neutrality debate is really about whether we want government intervention in the Internet market, or what I call Government Regulation of Internet Providers, i.e. GRIP. With the media presenting no other options besides GRIP, it is no surprise that many people think that the only way to ensure the continuance of Net Neutrality is by government action. However, I strongly believe that even people who claim they support GRIP don’t want the government to go as far as Title II classification. It is a clumsy, heavy-handed, throwing the baby out with the bathwater approach to Net Neutrality.
Most people who support GRIP simply want government regulation that will prevent “slow lanes” on the Internet. They don’t necessarily understand the wholesale ramifications that Title II classification of Internet service would bring. I truly believe that the people who created a culture of freedom and openness on the Internet have no desire for FCC control. But someone has done a masterful job of changing the discourse from simply “Net Neutrality” to complete FCC control of the Internet. I don’t think those who were vocal in support of Net Neutrality last year are necessarily excited about Title II. But it may be too late. The powers that be have used the quick popularity of the debate last year to create a proposal that encompasses much, much more than simply stopping the creation of “slow lanes”. However, this proposal isn’t being given time to be debated in the public space. It is being rushed to a vote. In fact, the public hasn’t seen the actual proposal the FCC will be voting on. So far we have only been given lip service about it. The public has no clue what is about to transpire, other than a supposed vote on “Net Neutrality”.
We must ask ourselves what is the rush to pass this latest FCC proposal? When the FCC proposed rules last year, they asked for public input, which was one of the reasons for the media circus around Net Neutrality. They are not asking for any such commentary on this proposal, which is way above and beyond the context of stopping slow lanes. I’m now seeing news reports that the Obama administration is directly involved in the latest FCC proposal, which is not surprising considering President Obama himself said he believes Internet service should be classified under Title II. At the same time, I’m also reading articles that the Federal Election Commission is considering ways to regulate bloggers and other political content on the Internet. This is not a new development, considering that many prominent elected officials have claimed that bloggers are not “real journalists,” and therefore are not protected under the 1st Amendment. Are you starting to see my overall concern?
The Internet has been a bastion of freedom and free press since it went mainstream in the mid 1990’s. It has resulted in a transformation of the media landscape unlike any other in history. Old World mainstream media is losing the control it had on the flow of information. Politicians do not like the fact they can not control the New World media like they could the old. Remember, it wasn’t mainstream media that broke the Monica Lewinsky story – it was the Drudge Report. In fact, the lead of the Drudge Report article was “Newsweek Kills Story on White House Intern”. Traditional media was happy to kill a story that has now become a significant episode in our history. We may never have known about the Monica Lewinsky affair if it were not for Internet media. Are we all that surprised that politicians want to control this source of information? Even if you are concerned that Net Neutrality is in danger, you can not believe the Internet would be safer under the control of the FCC.
The bottom line is it looks like we’ve all been snowed. The federal government has pulled off a shrewd sleight of hand, seemingly convincing us that in order to protect us from the big, bad, cable and telephone companies, they must take over control of the Internet. Remember, the FCC itself was the entity that scared the media into the Net Neutrality debate last year and now conveniently has had an about-face. However, if we truly care about the freedom of the Internet – if we truly care about our own freedom – we must recognize that this is the worst thing that could happen to the Internet. We must question if we have been pawns in a larger game over the future of the free and open Internet and not give in so easily to those who wish to control us.