Last week, the Trump administration’s Federal Communications Commission (FCC) released a plan to effectively end net neutrality. To help unpack what this means for regular people who use the internet, I spoke with Katrina vanden Heuvel, the editor and publisher of The Nation.
Rebecca Vallas: So just to kick us off, net neutrality is one of those wonky terms that doesn’t even sound like English. Help us understand—what is net neutrality?
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Katrina Vanden Heuvel: I think this fight around net neutrality is the free speech fight of our generation. Net neutrality is essentially the principal that all internet traffic should be treated equally. It prevents internet service providers from charging a premium for access to internet “fast lanes” or slamming the breaks on content that poses a threat to their financial or political interests.
I like the expression “the open internet,” the internet democracy. Net neutrality keeps the internet open, free, and fair; it preserves a level playing field where good ideas can prosper no matter who or where they come from. The free, democratic internet plays an essential role in our civic dialogue. And that’s why the FCC in 2015 passed rules to protect net neutrality, reclassify the internet as a public utility, and enforce the rules of a level playing field. The Trump FCC is trying to eliminate even the most basic net neutrality protections that were put in place. These would include the ban on blocking, replacing them with a “transparency” regime enforced by the FCC. Transparency is a euphemism for doing nothing. A broadband carrier like AT&T, if it wanted, might even practice internet censorship akin to that of the Chinese state, blocking its critics and promoting its own agenda. Allowing such censorship is anathema to the internet’s and America’s founding spirit.
There are some legal scholars who believe that by going this far in trying to overturn rules put in place under the Obama administration, the FCC may have overplayed its legal hand, and that this will go to the courts because government agencies aren’t free to abruptly reverse long-standing rules on which many have relied without a good reason. A mere change in FCC ideology isn’t enough. And I think we can talk a little bit about the activism that we’re going to see because the future of the internet is at stake on December 14, when former Verizon attorney Ajit Pai, chosen by Trump to chair the FCC, is going to force a vote on ending net neutrality.
RV: The main focus in the media since the announcement from the FCC last week has largely been on the battle between the so-called telecom titans, Comcast and AT&T, Verizon, and the internet giants, Google, Amazon, Facebook. But as you’re describing, there’s a lot more at play than who is going to win a big corporate tug of war—this is going to have real consequences for regular people who use the internet.
KVH: There is a corporatism at work here—the media monopolists in the telecom industry hate net neutrality. They’ve worked for years to overturn guarantees of an open internet because it gets in the way of profits. Now, if net neutrality is eliminated, these media monopolists will restructure how the internet works, creating information super-highways for corporate and political elites and digital dirt roads for those who can’t afford the corporate tolls. It’s fair to say that you’re witnessing a regime change where if Pai at the FCC is successful, he’s going to hand the keys to our open internet to major corporations to charge more for this tiered system. So it will, along with the tax bill—which will make our lives more unequal, more dirty, more unhealthy—you may well see a tiered system where powerful websites can pay to have their content delivered faster to consumers.
There’s another argument that’s been thrown out there, which is that the FCC chair says that he’s trying to make sure that new investment goes into the internet. He’s claiming that industry investments have gone down since 2015, the year the Obama administration last strengthened the net neutrality rules. Wrong, it’s just not the case. But let me step back and just ask, why should industry investments be the dominant measure of success in internet policy? Why is that the measure? What about improved access for students, or the emergence of innovations like streaming TV? So I think there’s a lot of skewing, a lot of false information being thrown around as the FCC tries to steamroll through changes that will impact and harm consumers, people with less access to capital, students, independent media, alternative voices, so there’s a real First Amendment free speech issue here, too.
RV: Some, including W. Kamau Bell, have pointed out that the end of net neutrality could be particularly devastating for artists and activists by effectively silencing the voices of people who aren’t already established or backed by those with power. He points out in an op-ed in The New York Times, “This fair internet, where everyone from an amateur comedian to a celebrity to a huge media company plays by the same rules, means you don’t need a lot of money or the backing of someone with power to share your content with the world.” And he names the example of Issa Rae, who started the web series “The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl,” which started as a YouTube series in 2011 but has now actually become a show, “Insecure,” that’s got its third season happening on HBO. It’s hard to imagine that happening in a world that doesn’t have net neutrality.
KVH: What we’re witnessing is more than a regulatory shift. It’s more than a story that should be consigned to the business pages. This is about a societal change. And if the FCC allows this digital profiteering to define the internet, it will affect all of what you spoke of, it will affect personal communications, education, commerce, economic arrangement, our politics and democracy itself. And it is a civil rights issue in a fundamental way because it’s about whose voice is heard. The most vulnerable are usually those who have a harder time making their voices heard, and a free internet lifts up and can amplify those who don’t have the money or power in our unequal society.
So this is a real fight for the kind of society we want to be, and I think that needs to be understood as we move to oppose not just the net neutrality decision. The FCC is beginning to overturn efforts to close the digital divide between wealthy and poor Americans, they’re declaring war on consumers, and in what I think is one of the most callous steps, the FCC abandoned an effort to limit the exorbitant cost of prison phone calls that sometimes force inmates’ families to pay upward of a dollar a minute to speak to their loved ones. So there is a real rollback of humanism as corporatism ascends.
This is a fire sale for humongous corporate interests, for the monopolists of the telecom world. There are going to be protests December 7 in advance of the December 14 FCC vote targeting the offices of corporations that have opposed net neutrality such as Verizon. There are going to be protests against offices of members of Congress who have opposed net neutrality. There will be marches on the FCC both digitally and on the streets, and there are legal and legislative strategies to defend the internet and the future.
RV: The politics on this as well are somewhat baffling, because obviously this is part of a larger deregulation agenda. But it also just seems a little bit odd frankly, coming from an administration that has taken the exact opposite position on other issues related to competition. I’m thinking here specifically about the Time Warner-AT&T merger. It was literally just one day before the FCC announcement on net neutrality that the Trump justice department announced its opposition to the proposed merger.
KVH: It’s incoherent. The reality is if you’re a strong supporter of free markets, net neutrality is what allows for competition and free market in the broadband space. If you’re someone who strongly supports free speech and freedom of expression, net neutrality is what prevents companies like Comcast that own NBC from prioritizing or censoring content online. I think there is a split in the progressive community about the Trump administration’s move on the merger.
What is chilling, however, is a personal vendetta against CNN. It looks like what we’ve seen too often from this administration, a politicization of the tools of justice, privatization of justice for the sake of an administration. So there is an incoherence that is puzzling, but what is not puzzling is that the dismantling of the administrative state, the march through the institutions, the deregulatory crusade is in full throttle. And what we’re witnessing with the FCC is in sync with that. In that sense there is a coherence to this deregulation of all kinds of reforms that have brought us clean air, clean water, and a free and democratic internet.
This interview was conducted for Off-Kilter and aired as part of a complete episode on December 1. It was edited for length and clarity.