If You Want To Save Net Neutrality, Don’t Bother Waiting For Google, Netflix Or Facebook’s Help
As the gutting of neutrality and killing off of privacy protections continues to proceed, companies like Netflix, Google, and Facebook, although making something of show of lobbying against such things, appear to be doing little actual good in their opposition efforts.
Guest post by Karl Bode of Techdirt
So if you've not been paying attention, broadband ISPs (with help from new FCC boss Ajit Pai) are slowly but surely working to eliminate oversight of one of the least-competitive sectors in American industry. It began with Pai killing off a number of FCC efforts piecemeal, including plans to beef up cable box competition, investigate zero rating, and FCC attempts to stop prison telco monopolies from ripping off inmate families. From there, Congress used the Congressional Review Act to kill FCC privacy protections for broadband consumers. Next up: reversing the FCC's 2015 Title II reclassification and gutting net neutrality.
Between this, cable's growing monopoly over broadband (including the rise in usage caps), the sunsetting of Comcast NBC merger conditions and a looming wave of new megamergers and sector consolidation, you should begin to notice there's a bit of a perfect storm brewing on the horizon when it comes to broadband and media competition, anti-competitive behavior, and oversight — one that's not going to be particularly enjoyable for broadband consumers, or the numerous companies that compete and/or do business with the likes of AT&T, Comcast and Verizon.
To that end, most of the internet industry's heaviest hitters — including Reddit, Google, Amazon, and Netflix — under the umbrella of the Internet Association (IA) — met with the FCC this week to urge Ajit Pai to keep the existing net neutrality rules in place. At the meeting, IA CEO Michael Beckerman and General Counsel Abigail Slater argued that things are working well with the rules in place, and that the long-standing industry claim that net neutrality hurt broadband investment is a canard:
"IA continues its vigorous support of the FCC’s OI [Open Internet] Order, which is a vital component of the free and open Internet," Beckerman wrote in an ex parte filing that summarized the meeting. "The Internet industry is uniform in its belief that net neutrality preserves the consumer experience, competition, and innovation online. In other words, existing net neutrality rules should be enforced and kept intact. The OI Order is working well and has been upheld by a DC Circuit panel. Further, IA preliminary economic research suggests that the OI Order did not have a negative impact on broadband Internet access service (BIAS) investment."
Unfortunately, the plea is likely to fall on deaf ears. Pai has made it abundantly clear he doesn't think that broadband competition, rampant consolidation, or net neutrality are real problems — whatsoever. In fact, when Pai has spoken on net neutrality, he's gone to rather comic lengths to try and claim that content companies like Netflix are the real villains, while downplaying any and all anti-competitive ISP behavior. At one point, Pai actually went so far as to claim that the fact that Netflix ran a CDN was proof positive that Netflix was the real threat to the internet.
The second major problem here is that while companies like Netflix, Google and Facebook are gently lobbying against the FCC's plan via the IA, independently they've been less active than ever in protecting net neutrality. Like Amazon and many other tech giants, Facebook has never really been particularly vocal on net neutrality — and in places like India they've consistently undermined the entire concept. Google has, contrary to public perception, also been arguably absent from the conversation since around 2010 when it began getting into fixed (Google Fiber) and wireless (Android, Project Fi) services. And as Netflix has grown more powerful, it's been notably less vocal on the subject as well.
Yes, these companies may still remain quietly active behind the scenes, but if you're hoping they come to the rescue in the same vocal way they did in the early days of the net neutrality feud, it's likely you're going to be disappointed. And with potentially less corporate firepower backing up their flanks, net neutrality supporters are going to have a steeper uphill climb this go round.
That brings us to the third major problem we're facing: the onus to save net neutrality this time is going to fall largely on the shoulders of consumers, small companies, and the startup community. But many of them, bored after a decade of often hyperbolic debate, were happily under the impression that once we had net neutrality rules — the fight was over. Many still don't understand that net neutrality is a fight that never really ends. Net neutrality (the symptom) certainly isn't getting better until you shore up broadband competition (the disease) — and there's exactly zero indication that's happening anytime soon.
That's not to say net neutrality can't be saved as the fight heats up over the next few months. But unless heavy hitters like Netflix and Google ramp up their opposition, and smaller companies and consumers shake off their apathy and begin waking up to the stage play currently underway in Congress and at the FCC, we're going to enter a new "golden era" of Comcast, AT&T, and Verizon cross-industry dominance that will make the media and internet issues of the last decade seem arguably quaint.