Last Tuesday, the Federal Communications Commission, led by deregulation zealot Ajit Pai, presented a plan to dismantle net neutrality in America. Not only must we fight to prevent that from happening, we must ensure it can never happen again.
Net neutrality is the principle that all internet data delivered to customers must be treated equally. Net neutrality rules prevent internet service providers (ISPs) from allowing users to see more of some types of content and less of others. Some potential consequences of repealing net neutrality rules include unfair speed and access advantages for large companies and tiered internet packages that further commodify things like streaming video and social media.
While telecom companies insist that government regulation hinders their business, opponents of ending net neutrality view these rules as a bulwark against an internet that would be built solely for the profit of large corporations at the expense of its users. Critics see a future of high-cost internet with add-ons, data caps, and fast lanes that complicate access and eliminate the open internet as we know it.
In the healthcare battle, we have seen how rallying people behind a vision of the future can be more effective than simply fighting to maintain the status quo. While lawmakers have been slow to come around, the majority of Democratic voters now support single-payer healthcare. “Medicare for all” provides a vision for a better future. This makes it easier for healthcare activists to knock on doors and win converts. It gives people something to fight for rather than simply stand against.
The same could be true for net neutrality. Instead of just standing against Pai’s proposals, let’s stand for nationalizing the internet.
In the post-Reagan era in America, we have been conditioned to believe that the government isn’t equipped to handle large-scale projects. Conventional wisdom has been that private industry is better equipped to handle things than the government. Deregulation has been the agenda of baby boomer conservatives. And it has failed. It has failed the environment. It has failed the airline industry. It has failed education. It will fail the internet.
What would a nationalized internet look like? When we talk about nationalizing the internet, the best model to imagine probably isn’t the post office, but electric and water companies. Like these public utilities, internet is piped into your house. Also like water and electric, you need the internet to fully function in the modern world.
So, why shouldn’t the internet be a utility?
The biggest argument against this view is that it would eliminate competition. Competition, free-market types believe, is the key to innovation. Under this system, the job of an ISP is to deliver as fast a connection as possible for as low a price as possible. The problem is, competition among internet providers is a joke.
Currently, many consumers have only one or two options for high-speed broadband providers in their area, if any. Fifty-million households have one choice or fewer. Nearly 40 percent of America’s rural households lack high-speed internet, according to the FCC. As many customers know, those that do have high-speed access are subject to fluctuating bills and varying levels of service.
What exactly is being innovated here? Innovations like smart TVs, mobile hotspots, and smartphones have been transformative for many people’s lives. But these technologies have nothing to do with the delivery of broadband internet.
Writing in Pacific Standard, Rick Paulas described the current ISP situation like this: “[O]nly a few massive companies have been able to compete with one another, and a majority of those competitions have ended in a kind of stalemate where they just end up carving up the marketplace block by block, or building by building, and forcing the residents to either choose their service or choose nothing.”
So, there isn’t much innovation going on. But what proof do we have that the free market drives innovation for ISPs? Jeff Dunn of Business Insider tried to argue for a free market solution but ended up admitting that, as currently constituted, the barrier to entry is so high for an ISP startup that robust competition is impossible. In the Washington Post, Larry Downes claimed that public utilities don’t innovate but declined to name one crucial advancement made by Comcast or its ilk in recent years. A recent New York Times op-ed also failed to articulate what innovations have made the nightmare of Time Warner customer service worth our while.
If there are no particular innovations these conservative commenters can point to, who is to say that an internet paid for and overseen by the government wouldn’t be as good if not better? Couldn’t we just vote out politicians who fail to keep our municipal ISPs on pace to handle our computers and smartphone needs? Perhaps the will of the people will be a more effective means for progress in this sector than corporate innovations.
Again, tens of millions of people in America don’t have high-speed internet. Those people are disproportionately poor and disproportionately rural. Are we to really believe that a child who goes without high-speed internet in their childhood can expect to compete in the global marketplace? Can a child in Appalachia, on a Native American reservation, or living in poverty in the inner city really be expected to achieve their potential if they don’t have quality internet access? What percentage of the jobs have you done have depended upon a working knowledge of the internet? What dream job doesn’t require a strong internet presence?
Wouldn’t universal access to high-speed internet actually increase the intellectual and productive possibilities of our country? Maybe the key to innovation is giving everyone in America an opportunity to innovate.
In fact, some Democrats are moving in this direction. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) on Wednesday announced a $40 billion plan to bring high-speed internet to America’s underserved communities.
“Every rural home is entitled to broadband at the same speed and levels as every urban home,” Schumer said during a town hall meeting in New York’s Livingston County. “In fact, it’s not just rural homes but a lot of suburban homes that are left behind.”
Sign the petitions. Give Ajit Pai a piece of your mind. But, at the same time, let’s look beyond the Trump administration. Let’s look to a vision of the future that we want. Let’s build the groundwork for an America where every child has access to high-speed internet regardless of class, regardless of community.
Let’s nationalize the internet.