Last week, Washington witnessed one of the most impressive demonstrations of lobbying power in recent decades. It avoided both the traditional hot-button issues and the usual suspects in a performance so masterful that most of those rallying to the cause didn’t even know they’d been manipulated.
This project began over a decade ago, when the masters of information first coined the term “net neutrality.” It was brilliant marketing; the kind of cause that only a fool or a knave would oppose. And it succeeded.
Almost every user of the internet — meaning almost everyone — is at least dimly aware of the two relationships that make their internet experience a reality. The first is with the folks who make connectivity possible — large cable or telephone providers like Comcast, Verizon, AT&T, or Charter (formerly Time Warner). The second is with the folks whose platforms dominate our internet experience — large software-based companies like Google, Facebook, Netflix, or Twitter.
These two groups of companies also have deep and intimate relationships with each other. Large connectivity companies and large platform companies need each other. They all know that users count on them to provide a seamless internet experience — and that apparent seamlessness is good for everyone’s business. Poor connectivity will reduce profits for platform providers. Weak platform experiences will reduce profits for connectivity providers. Come hell or high water, these two groups of big, powerful companies will find ways to work together to their mutual benefit.
In negotiating the terms of their relationship, however, the two corporate groups sit on opposite sides of the table. They hammer out complex contracts that determine, in part, the ways they can split the money consumers spend to use the internet. Because most of the contractual terms are negotiable, each contracting party seeks to gain the upper hand. After all, the greater their relative power, the greater their share of the profits.
“Net Neutrality” was a brilliant ploy by platform providers to limit the bargaining power of connectivity providers. The platform providers understood that under normal circumstances, users would be ambivalent about how the various corporate titans dominating the internet split their profits. Unless consumer prices dropped or services improved, most consumers would happily sit on the sidelines refusing to take a side.
With the net neutrality canard, the platform providers convinced millions of American consumers that powerful connectivity providers imperiled their user experiences. Only powerful platform providers, they argued, could ensure the free and open internet experience users value, crave — and mistakenly believe they have.
The irony, of course, is that while there is zero indication that connectivity providers have any interest in controlling the flow of information, there is considerable evidence proving that platform providers do so on a regular basis — and are increasing their control with each passing year.
Still, the idea caught on. The well-known revolving door between Silicon Valley and the Obama Administration pushed net-neutrality dogma to the highest levels of government. The Obama-era FCC spent years trying to find the jurisdiction necessary to favor the platform providers it liked over the connectivity providers whose campaign contributions, though healthy, fell short. After a few failed attempts, late in the Obama years, the FCC simply claimed unprecedented jurisdiction to regulate the internet and imposed the net neutrality rules.
Last week, the Trump-era FCC reversed course, voted to repeal the Obama-era overreach and return to the regulatory regime that existed until 2015. That decision led to a truly impressive display of lobbyist clout. Their proclamations reached a fever pitch. CNN and others issued apocalyptic proclamations of the end the internet as we know it. Protestors stalked FCC Chair Ajit Pai’s home and targeted his children. One particularly passionate protestor was arrested for issuing a death threat to a member of Congress. A bomb threat cleared the packed FCC hearing room shortly before the vote. Formerly entertaining late-night fixtures predictably jumped on board; Stephen Colbert’s “R.I.P. The Internet” narrowly edged out Jimmy Kimmel’s “absolutely despicable” in the stiff competition for least unfunny commentary. All thanks to a shift in negotiating power from dominant platform companies to large connectivity providers.
At the end of the day, internet users should be ambivalent about the negotiations between the two groups of corporations most responsible for their user experience. So should the federal government. Yes, abuses are possible in theory — from either side. Existing bodies of law should be capable of dealing with any such abuses; if they are not, regulatory reform may be necessary at some point in the future. Such reform should, however, come from Congress — not from an FCC deciding on its own that it has the right to police the internet.
To date, only the platform providers — not the connectivity providers — have engaged in potentially problematic acts of favoritism and censorship. Net neutrality seeks to enhance the power of those abusers. The internet is better off without it.
Bruce Abramson is the President of Informationism, Inc., Vice President and Director of Policy at the Iron Dome Alliance, and a Senior Fellow at the London Center for Policy Research. Jeff Ballabon is CEO of B2 Strategic, a Senior Fellow at the American Conservative Union's Center for Statesmanship and Diplomacy, and an advisor to Donald J. Trump for President, Inc. To read more of their reports — Click Here Now.
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