End of net neutrality means more corporate control of Central Coast media and speech

by Steve Blum • , , ,

I was asked to write a piece on net neutrality from a Central Coast perspective, for Santa Cruz TechBeat, and thought it might be worth reposting here, with some minor updating…

The Federal Communications Commission is on a fast and narrow track to repeal network neutrality rules and declare broadband industry regulation off limits. The three republican commissioners say they’ll vote on Thursday to scrap the broadband regulatory regime enacted during the Obama administration, also on a 3 to 2 party line vote.

It’s a particularly important decision for people on the Central Coast, where the broadband market is dominated by the three biggest providers – Comcast, Charter and AT&T – with the greatest incentive to use their control of the Internet’s plumbing to send more of their, um, stuff your way.

Comcast, which owns NBC/Universal, has already backed away from the net neutrality pledge it made while ever so humbly (and unsuccessfully) sought permission to add Time Warner and Charter cable systems to its domain in 2014. AT&T has a similar non-promise on the table, and can be expected to stick to it while it tries to buy Time Warner media and content companies. After that, all bets are off. Same with Charter, which is controlled by Liberty Media and likewise tied to content ownership.

The top level issue is whether broadband is a telecommunications service or an information service. It’s a telecommunications service and subject to common carrier style regulation if it involves “the transmission, between or among points specified by the user, of information of the user’s choosing, without change in the form or content of the information as sent and received”, as federal law puts it. Otherwise, broadband is an information service and federal, state and local agencies, and particularly the FCC and California Public Utilities Commission, have very limited authority over it.

Twenty years ago, when Internet access was inextricably tied to the email, chat room, portal and home page features offered by the likes of AOL and CompuServe, the FCC decided it was an information service and left it alone. Looking back, it was both the correct decision and a good one.

Times have changed. Simple Internet access is now a discrete service, typically offered on a standalone basis with informational services strictly optional. The market, at best, is a duopoly collapsing into a monopoly – Comcast and Charter Communications account for 48% of U.S. wireline (and fixed wireless) broadband subscribers, and their share is growing. The next three biggest ISPs – AT&T, Verizon and CenturyLink – muster only a 28% market share, but that’s enough to put more than three-quarters of U.S. broadband subscribers in the hands of just five companies.

Fear of that kind of control led to the first attempt at network neutrality rules in 2010. Then, as now, those rules said that ISPs had to treat every bit sent or received by a subscriber equally. Comcast couldn’t, say, choke off another video distributor, like Netflix or a competing network, like CBS.

It didn’t last. A federal appeals court told the FCC that if it wanted to regulate broadband, it had to do so using common carrier rules – under Title II of federal communications law, as the jargon goes. Which meant reclassifying Internet access as a telecommunications service.

After intensive industry lobbying and partisan bickering, fulsome public comment and a viral John Oliver rant, a democrat-majority FCC obliged in 2015, and net neutrality rules were back. Then Donald Trump was elected, and a republican majority took over at the FCC, promising to take “a weed whacker” to Washington’s thick regulatory underbrush.

So what can we do?

There was a protest planned at the Verizon store on 41st Avenue in Capitola last week. (FCC chair Ajit Pai used to work for Verizon, so they’re the punching bag of choice). The Central Coast’s congressional delegation is solidly democratic, and most – senators Diane Feinstein and Kamala Harris, and representative Anna Eshoo – have spoken out against the FCC’s plan to end net neutrality. Republicans aren’t paying much attention, but even so, expressing thanks (or objections, if you don’t agree) is a way of adding your voice to the debate.

And go online. Social media, virtual protests and more are tools we have to made ourselves heard, without fear of corporate interference.

For now.