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Forget Russian Collusion – Worry About Net Neutrality

Net Neutrality
Forget Russian Collusion - Worry About Net Neutrality

Trump’s possible ties to Russia are all over the news. Meanwhile, a net neutrality bill makes its way through Congress, one that will affect everything online.

In an opening monologue from Stephen Colbert on his late night show, he asked, “Anyone here use the Internet? You might want to knock that off.” He was referring to the recent vote by Congress to allow internet service providers to sell individuals’ web browsing history to marketers, and advertisers—and anyone else who has the cash to buy it. According to the proposed bill from John Thune (R-SD), it states that its intention is “to prohibit blocking lawful content and non-harmful devices, to prohibit throttling data, to prohibit paid prioritization, to require transparency of network management practices.” Yet this language only seems to insure the parameters of consumer protection. It also hopes to frustrate Google, Netflix or Comcast and other mobile companies as they continue to the path toward monopolization. The topic of net neutrality, and the telecommunication policy changes associated with it, cannot compete with such sensational topics as Trump’s collusion with the Russians right now. But it is a specter that continues to linger around any conversation about espionage. It is one of several proposed rollback regulations that is equally troubling because it means that it has taken an ideological stance on intellectual copyright. From a public versus private ownership standpoint, which restrict internet providers from sharing or selling subscriber information on internet usage without consent, everything may be fair game.

Although the aforementioned first part of Thune’s bill’s proposal attempts to embrace a bi-partisan attitude toward the amendment of the 1934 Telecommunications Act, subsequent provisions lean more to the right. Within the Open Internet Access provision, a request that states that, “a provider is not required to publicly disclose competitively sensitive information or information that could compromise network security or undermine the efficacy of reasonable network management practices.” Essentially, this protects a company from having to cough up any proprietary data that might, using military defense rhetoric, ‘compromise’ its ‘network security.’ Corporations would enjoy similar privileges to that of the federal government that can classify material based on its sensitivity or potential threat to national security.  So in terms disenabling free speech, there are fewer open networks. Comcast, let’s say, could willfully and legally obstruct any applications or content that use their infrastructure or network because it may ‘undermine the efficacy’ of their ‘management practices.’ It supports the conglomerate logic about media availability to consumers and citizens purely based upon the editorial discretion of ownership.

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The regulatory amendment is much more sensitive to changes in legal restrictions as its influence by market forces. Larry Downes at the Harvard Business Review highlighted the necessity to make effective steps both to undo the public utility reclassification, which is a wise solution that that should inform future legislation. This is stipulated in the bill as “to provide that broadband shall be considered to be an information service,” so it will be designated as a paid-for service versus a heavily-government-regulated utility. What this means is that treating the Internet very much like the other public municipal infrastructure i.e. water, electricity, transportation would suffer a similar fate of inefficiency, that leads to a state of gradual degradation. This has actually received bipartisan acknowledgement as the need to modernize the definitions and understanding in telecommunication that were set in the 1930’s. Thus framing net neutrality by the House and Senate Republicans as merely a revisit of outdated descriptions is a clever disguise.  But in legal terms, it’s a bit more complicated, in the issue of where access transcends free market preferences, The Supreme Court (United States vs. Southwestern Cable Co. 392 U.S. 157 (1968)) intervened in 1966. When the FCC included cable systems that used microwaves “established rules for all cable systems (whether or not served by microwave)”, it affirmed the FCC’s decision. This was because the “regulatory authority over CATV is imperative if it is to perform with appropriate effectiveness certain of its responsibilities”.  It made sense that cable television was a service that was exclusively for profit. This meant that ownership of cable companies (who are now ISP’s) must be geographically defined not by markets. It hoped to ensure that standard delivery systems were available to everyone and it wouldn’t be so cost prohibitive that the public couldn’t get the most basic level of utility. This would include people being able to get notifications of catastrophic weather, national emergencies or even local news. Since it’s not really a matter of utility anymore, Downes reduces things to a simpler test of wise deregulation. The most natural way to untangle the mess, he says, is by improving the system to ensure reliable services that incentivize innovation—even if it means if Apple gets to eventually water board its fans. The end game for net neutrality that involves, “blocking or discriminate against any applications or content that ride over those networks,” which has no intention to encourage competition.

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What is annoyingly troubling in the proposed bill by Thune and other House and Senate Republicans is that they are ultimately similar to SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act), ECPA (Electronic Communications Privacy Act), CISPA (Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act) and The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA). What’s important to note here is that the way Washington is going to pass legislation will be concealing the terms and conditions of the bills that are purposely deceptive. As opposed to explaining the fact that privacy or anti-piracy agendas are designed to protect either the government or corporate property, it will be phrased as ‘prohibit blocking’; ‘transparency’; ‘protecting intellectual copyright’, etc. There is some positive sides to these bills, which aim to monitor foreign and domestic terrorist cells. And an effort to limit the extents that free downloading hurts the laborers in the film industry does makes sense. However, greasing the wheels of the economy by allowing businesses to tunnel through every network into the consumer’s consciousness, doesn’t. And when Snowden unveiled the effort of the NSA to spy on U.S. citizens, it wasn’t permissible. This is why net neutrality is not bimodal compromise; it involves the collective cultural assumptions about liberty, knowledge and ethics as much as anything else.

In an interview, former Reddit founder and activist Aaron Swartz, described that the Internet’s two identities must coexist as not only an agent of freedom but as a public enemy. As he said in 2012 in a clip from “Internet’s Own Boy”, there are “two polarizing perspectives, right, everything is great, the internet has created all this freedom and liberty and everything is going to be fantastic or that everything is terrible, the internet has created all these tools for cracking, spying and controlling what we say, and these both are true, right the internet has done both. And both are kind of amazing, and astonishing and which one will win out in the long run is up to us.”

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Jason Smith
About Jason Smith 4 Articles
Jason K. Smith, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor of Communications & Media Arts at Bethany College in Bethany West Virginia and Vice President of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) Chapter.

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