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Socialize the Internet

President Trump just handed Internet providers the ability to do whatever they want with your data. Here's how to fight back.

Jamie Henderson / Flickr

No company knows more about where you go online than your Internet service provider (ISP). Almost everything you do on the Internet leaves a trace. And the most revealing traces aren’t left on the various platforms you use — Google and Facebook, for instance — but on the service you use to access the Internet in the first place. At a minimum, your ISP logs the websites you visit, when you visit them, how long you spend on each site, your location, and your device — and they’re probably logging a lot more.

Last week, Congress passed a bill that lets ISPs do whatever they want with that data. Yesterday, President Trump signed it into law. The result is the demolition of the landmark privacy protections established in October 2016 by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which imposed a number of restrictions on how ISPs can use customer data. Among other things, the rules forced ISPs to obtain explicit “opt-in” permission from customers before using “sensitive” information — including your browsing history.

What does the new law change from a user’s perspective? Nothing — and that’s the point. The FCC’s privacy rules weren’t slated to go into effect until the end of this year, and this law ensures they never will. It also forbids the FCC from pursuing similar regulations in the future.

The new law is a big victory for the telecom industry, which spent heavily to produce this outcome. Telecom companies devote a considerable amount of money to purchasing political influence. They field armies of lobbyists in Washington and state capitals across the country, and contribute generously to political campaigns. And for good reason: the telecom industry is an oligopoly ruled by a handful of big firms that require a steady diet of government intervention to preserve their profits, and to insulate them from the anger of their exasperated customers.

ISPs regularly rank at the bottom of the annual American Customer Satisfaction Index, making them even more unpopular than airlines and health insurers. Most hated of all is Comcast, America’s largest ISP, whose customers once flooded the FCC with more than ten thousand complaints. Not coincidentally, Comcast was the single largest telecom lobbyist in 2016, spending $14.33 million — out of an industry total of more than $87 million. If you’ve ever wondered why your monthly Internet bill keeps going up while your Internet service keeps getting worse, visualize a lobbyist in a thousand-dollar suit chasing your congressman around Capitol Hill.

The industry’s robust political machinery keeps the ISP business model intact. It’s a lucrative arrangement, premised on high prices, slow speeds, and a highly consolidated and uncompetitive market. But ISPs are hungry for even higher profits. No longer content with overcharging customers for a pitiful Internet connection, they’re keen to convert those same customers into a new source of revenue by monetizing their data.

This is the economic motivation behind the new law: ISPs want to join the profitable trade in personal data pioneered so successfully by online platforms like Google and Facebook. They want to mine your browsing history in order to build a detailed profile of your interests so they can sell you more services, sell you to advertisers with targeted ads, or sell your data outright to third-party marketing firms. Your ISP sees much more of your Internet traffic than a company like Google. As a result, the dataset they can develop about you is significantly more informative — and thus more valuable.

Because ISPs are owned by sprawling conglomerates, the personal data they collect can be monetized across a range of platforms. Comcast is not just an ISP but a cable television provider, a broadcaster, and a movie studio. In other words, it owns a lot of screens — which means a lot of places to show you targeted ads. Another example is Verizon. In addition to being a major ISP and the nation’s biggest wireless provider, Verizon owns AOL and Yahoo. Imagine all of the ways that such a company could use data harvested from your online history to make money.

The New Agenda

The new law enables telecom companies to pursue these new sources of cash without fear of regulatory interference. It also represents a show of strength by an industry that sees the new administration as an opportunity to roll back recent attempts to constrain it. Under Obama, the FCC made meaningful gains on Internet governance. Most significantly, the agency reclassified ISPs as “common carriers” under Title II of the Communications Act of 1934, which subjected them to stricter regulation.

Led by Chairman Tom Wheeler, the FCC used these expanded powers to enforce “net neutrality,” the principle that ISPs should treat all kinds of data the same way. Specifically, the agency prohibited ISPs from blocking traffic to particular sites, slowing customer speeds, and accepting “paid prioritization” from content providers to create so-called “fast lanes” for certain kinds of traffic.

The new FCC chairman, Ajit Pai, voted against those rules as a member of the agency he now leads. Pai is a ghoulish figure. Since Trump appointed him chairman in January, he has proven himself to be not merely a loyal servant of capital, but a sadist who appears to enjoy punishing the poor. He has cruelly ended the agency’s effort to cap the exorbitant prices paid by prisoners to make phone calls, leaving inmates at the mercy of predatory companies that charge them up to $1.50 per minute. He has also begun to shrink the Lifeline program, which provides subsidized Internet service to low-income households.

But Pai’s top priority is to dismantle net neutrality, along with the common-carrier classification that empowers the FCC to enforce it. While he can pursue this agenda from within the agency, he can’t do everything by himself: he ultimately needs Congress to strip the FCC of its regulatory powers.

The new Internet privacy law marks an important first step in that direction. It passed Congress largely along party lines, with Republicans in favor and Democrats opposed. Given the current balance of power in Congress and the current occupant of the White House, future laws are also likely to pass — particularly if some Democrats get onboard. And Democrats shouldn’t be too hard to soften up: after all, they received almost $10 million from the telecom industry in 2016, $1 million more than Republicans.

From the Personal to the Political

So what can Internet users do to fight back?

There are certain technical precautions you can take to protect your privacy. The first is to install a browser extension like HTTPS Everywhere, which forces your browser to view the secure version of the websites you visit. The secure version uses a protocol called HTTPS, which encrypts your connection with the site. Today, more than half of all Internet traffic is encrypted via HTTPS — and after Congress passed the new law, porn giants PornHub and YouPorn announced they would be adding HTTPS as well.

HTTPS doesn’t prevent ISPs from seeing what sites you visit, but it does prevent them from seeing what you do on those sites. So your ISP would know that you visited PornHub, for instance, but not what videos you watched. A further step would be to use a virtual private network (VPN), which funnels all of your traffic through a secure link with another server. Then your ISP can see neither the contents of your communications nor which sites you’re communicating with — it can only see that you’re connected to the VPN. VPNs are a useful tool, but they vary widely in quality. Research your options carefully and avoid “free” VPNs, which are just as likely to monetize your data as your ISP.

Technology can help shield some of your data from corporate capture. A more robust response, however, will require politics. In the short term, this includes mobilizing to restore the privacy protections repealed by Congress, and to preserve net neutrality and the common-carrier classification more broadly. Those gains were won by public mobilization — and now must be defended by public mobilization. When the FCC was first contemplating its net-neutrality rules in 2014, it received a record-breaking 3.7 million comments. In the coming years, something similar will be required.

While the FCC’s regulatory victories are worth protecting, however, they shouldn’t define the outer limit of our political imagination. Obama’s FCC was better than Trump’s FCC, but it didn’t go nearly far enough. When the agency reclassified ISPs, it exempted them from many of the provisions of the Communications Act of 1934, promising a “‘light-touch’ regulatory framework” that explicitly rejected “prescriptive, industry-wide rate regulation.” The agency also left untouched large portions of the Internet, refusing to regulate the “backbone” providers that own the main pipes of the network and the “edge” providers like Google, Facebook, and Netflix that own most of the content that flows through those pipes.

Of course, any attempt to impose a degree of democratic control on these industries will need a very big movement behind it. But it’s not just a question of building enough political power. It’s also a matter of developing new ideas and metaphors that can sustain a more ambitious approach to Internet governance. Above all, this means moving beyond net neutrality.

Competition Isn't a Panacea

Net neutrality is a politically useful concept. As a rallying cry, it has focused public attention on the corporate domination of the Internet and guided important regulatory advances. But it has serious limitations that make it a poorly suited framework for the longer fight to democratize the digital sphere.

Perhaps the most obvious problem with net neutrality is that, strictly speaking, it’s impossible. Treating all data on the Internet the same way is neither feasible nor desirable. Different applications have different needs in terms of speed and bandwidth, and the companies that run the infrastructure of the Internet necessarily privilege one kind of packet over another in ways the benefit the network as a whole.

In fairness, however, net neutrality’s proponents have never insisted on a literal interpretation. Vint Cerf, one of the architects of the Internet, says that the point of net neutrality isn’t the pedantic insistence that providers “treat every packet the same,” but rather the idea that they shouldn’t “engage in anti-competitive behavior and in anti-consumer behavior.” This sentiment is echoed by Tim Wu, the originator of the phrase, who often describes net neutrality as a principle that guarantees a “level playing field.”

These arguments place net neutrality firmly within a liberal antitrust tradition that dates back to the turn of the twentieth century. The substance of this tradition is the belief that markets will generate socially beneficial outcomes, if only the correct amount of competition exists. In this view, the problem with the Internet is its ownership by a handful of big companies that can tilt the field in their favor. By contrast, a “neutral” network would require everyone to play by the same rules, fostering an ecosystem more favorable to upstart providers and platforms.

Unfortunately, competition is an imperfect tool for building a better Internet. It’s true that forcing big ISPs to compete could help reduce costs for consumers. But that logic can only go so far: the Internet requires a lot of infrastructure to run, and the barriers of entry are likely to remain high. More importantly, there are virtues to bigness: economies of scale produce real efficiencies, especially when it comes to a large, distributed, and complex system like the Internet.

Currently, about four companies dominate the ISP market, somewhere between seven and twelve companies dominate the Internet backbone market, and more than half of the data flowing to American users at peak hours comes from only thirty companies — with Netflix alone accounting for more than a third. Would the average Internet user be better off if each of those markets had more competition? If we had ten Comcasts, or twelve Facebooks? Possibly, but not necessarily. To take just one example, Facebook’s monopoly is precisely what makes it useful — scattering users across twelve Facebooks would defeat the purpose of the platform.

Ours to Master

The problem with the Internet isn’t the size of the companies that control it. The problem with the Internet is the antidemocratic nature of a system run exclusively for private profit. Net neutrality is rooted in a liberalism that sees bigness as the enemy and competition as the solution. A left agenda for Internet governance will have to reach beyond this narrow horizon, towards a socialist tradition that sees private ownership as the problem, and democracy as the solution.

In terms of rhetoric, this means moving away from the language of consumer choice and towards the language of rights. We shouldn’t be talking about customers, but citizens. All Americans have a right to high-speed, low-cost Internet. That’s not only because Internet access is a basic precondition for full participation in the social and economic life of the country. It’s also because our money built the Internet — and because our data continues to bankroll some of its most profitable companies.

The Left should never let people forget that the Internet was constructed by the government at enormous public expense, before being rapidly and wholly privatized in the 1990s. Public money financed the technology, the infrastructure, and even many of the individual companies that make up the modern Internet. Today’s corporate-controlled network is the direct legacy of privatization. Reversing that legacy means reclaiming our rights over the system we created in common — not only our right to access the Internet, but our right to control the personal data that flows through it, which Google, Facebook, and others have put to such lucrative purposes.

The policy tools that the Left uses to guarantee those rights will vary. One possibility is stronger, utility-style regulation aimed not at breaking bigger companies into smaller ones but at strengthening popular sovereignty and democratic accountability — setting rates for ISPs, for example, or establishing rules that govern the mining of personal data for profit.

The ultimate goal shouldn’t just be to regulate private firms more aggressively, however, but to replace them with public and cooperative alternatives. Fortunately, such alternatives already exist at a local level: worker-owned platform cooperatives have begun to find their footing, and experiments in publicly owned broadband have proven wildly popular. If Comcast is the most hated ISP in the country, the best loved is the Electric Power Board (EPB) of Chattanooga, a city-owned utility that began selling affordable high-speed Internet service to residents in 2010. Consumer Reports ranks EPB as America’s most popular ISP, and it offers some of the fastest residential speeds in the world. Indeed, its success terrifies the telecom industry, which has lobbied state legislatures to ban or limit similar ventures.

If small-market municipal broadband and basic privacy protections can provoke such a forceful industry response, you can imagine the kind of fury that would be unleashed if the state ever dared to contest the corporate conquest of the Internet. Like anything that challenges capital, such a step will need a highly mobilized social majority behind it. That might seem like a distant prospect in today’s political climate. But it’s exactly at such a moment that the Left needs to put forward big, utopian demands that stand in stark contrast with the nihilism of the Right and the timidity of the center.

And if deprivatizing the Internet seems improbable, it’s worth remembering how improbable the Internet was in the first place. Trying to explain the Internet to a computer scientist in 1960 would be like trying to explain the automobile to a railroad engineer in 1860. It would sound frankly ridiculous — something from the mind of a charlatan or a lunatic. Bringing the Internet into being required not just buckets of public cash, but imaginative thinking that defied conventional wisdom. Something of that creative, contrarian spirit may be useful today, as the Left struggles to pry open our political imagination and envision not merely the least bad future, but the best of all possible worlds.