- Interview by
- Meagan Day
In the heady days of the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street, many trumpeted the emancipatory potential of the internet. They spoke of networks and hive minds, crowdsourced revolution and livestreamed liberation. But the internet, like everything else, is subject to market discipline and vulnerable to privatization — and with each new victory for the American telecommunications oligopoly, that digital optimism fades further from view.
Last week, Federal Communications Commission (FCC) chairman Ajit Pai announced that his agency will be repealing the hard-won net neutrality protections instituted in 2015 by the Obama administration. To understand what net neutrality is and why it matters for the Left, Jacobin’s Meagan Day spoke to Victor Pickard, associate professor of communication at the University Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School, whose research focuses on internet policy and the political economy of media.
Let’s start with defining the term. What is net neutrality?
Net neutrality protections are essentially safeguards that prevent internet service providers (ISPs) from interfering with the internet. Net neutrality gives the FCC the regulatory authority to prevent ISPs like Comcast and Verizon from slowing down or blocking certain types of content. It also prevents them from offering what’s known as paid prioritization, where an ISP could let particular websites or content creators pay more for faster streaming and download times. With paid prioritization an ISP could shake down a company like Netflix or an individual website owner, coercing them to pay more in order to be in the fast lane.
Net neutrality often gets treated as a sort of technocratic squabble over ownership and control of internet pipes. But in fact it speaks to a core social contract between government, corporations, and the public. What it really comes down to is, how can members of the public obtain information and services, and express ourselves creatively and politically, without interference from massive corporations?
Should we think of the internet as a good, a service, an infrastructure, or something else?
It’s all of the above. Usually it gets treated as a magical technology that’s beyond the regulatory realm, or as a commodity and a product of the free market. But it can be framed as a vital communication infrastructure which is necessary for democracy, or a public service on which democracy depends, or even a public good since the internet is a major means through which information is obtained. All of these ways of thinking about the internet begin to suggest that it’s not something we should leave vulnerable to the brute forces of the market. At the very least we should shield the internet from market forces, if not remove it from the market entirely.
The internet has been radically privatized. It wasn’t inevitable, but through policy decisions over the years, the internet has become increasingly commodified. Meanwhile it’s really difficult to imagine living in modern society without fast internet services — it’s no longer a luxury but a necessity for everything ranging from education to health to livelihood. The “digital divide” is a phrase that sounds like it’s from the 1990s, but it’s still very relevant. Somewhere around one fifth of American households don’t have access to wireline broadband services. It’s a social problem. We should be thinking about the internet as a public service and subsidizing it to make sure that everyone has access.
In your recent book on media democracy, you discuss the rise of what you call “corporate libertarianism.” What is corporate libertarianism and how does it relate to net neutrality?
Corporate libertarianism is an ideological project that has origins at a core moment in the 1940s. It sees corporations as having individual freedoms, like those in the First Amendment, which they can use to shield themselves from public interest oversight and regulation. It’s also often connected to this assumption that the government should never intervene in markets, and media markets in particular.
Of course, this is a libertarian mythology — the government is always involved. The question ought to be how it should be involved. Under corporate libertarianism it’s assumed that the government should only be involved in ways that enhance profit maximization for communication oligopolies.
The FCC right now is exhibiting a textbook case of regulatory capture, which is the scenario where a government regulatory body begins to internalize the logic and value systems of the industries it purportedly regulates. Over time it begins to harmonize its actions with the commercial imperatives of the corporations it’s meant to oversee.
We keep hearing about what Ajit Pai at the FCC is doing as a deregulatory project, but deregulation is a gross misnomer. It’s really re-regulation. It’s about restructuring our communications systems in line with corporate interests.
What are the implications of that re-regulation for the media landscape?
If we were to lose net neutrality protections, which by all appearances we will, that would suddenly create all kinds of vulnerabilities for independent media. There are clear dangers associated with vertical integration, where the company that owns the pipes is able to control the dissemination of information, and able to set the terms by which we access that information. When we think about, for instance, dissenting political news sources that don’t have the resources to compete in a pay-to-play media environment, we see that there are obvious political hazards.
And more than that, we could start to see scenarios where ISPs don’t like the political views that are being disseminated from a particular news outlet. Without net neutrality they would be free to block or slow down content from those sites. There have been cases like this already. In 2005, the company Telus, which is the second largest telecommunications company in Canada, began blocking access to a server that hosted a website that supported a labor strike against Telus. Anyone involved in journalism or activism should be concerned about this kind of retaliation and censorship.
Political ideologies opposed to corporate control are going to bear the brunt of this. There’s a growing anti-monopoly movement in the United States, and that’s clearly going to come into conflict with the political views of these monopolies. In the coming corporate libertarian internet landscape, the Left is disproportionately vulnerable.
Net neutrality is just one part of the story. What other regulations, policies and interventions could resist corporate control of the internet?
Roughly half of Americans live in communities that have access to only one ISP. So in many ways net neutrality is an effort to address a problem downstream from the core issue, which is monopoly power in the telecom industry. If we weren’t at the mercy of these monopolies, we could simply switch providers if they started violating net neutrality. This brings into focus the question of how we try to contain and confront monopolies, and there are three general ways of doing this.
One is to break them up, and to prevent monopolies and oligopolies from happening in the first place by blocking mergers and acquisitions. Second, in cases where we concede that there are natural monopolies, if we’re not going to outright nationalize them then we want to heavily regulate them, and enforce some kind of social contract where they’re compelled to provide a public service in exchange for the right to operate.
The third strategy, and in many ways the most important one, is to create public alternatives, like municipal wireless networks that can circumvent and compete with corporate monopolies. There’s a growing number of these publicly owned and governed internet infrastructures, and building more is crucial.
How optimistic are you that a movement can emerge to fight for a democratic internet?
The silver lining here is that so many Americans are concerned about something as wonky sounding as net neutrality. By last count over 20 million people signed petitions or wrote to the FCC about this issue. That’s mind-blowing. It shows a populace that realizes these decisions are made on the public’s behalf without the public’s consent. I take heart in that.
One of the slogans you hear sometimes is that whatever your first political issue is, media reform should be your second issue — because you’re not going to get very far with your political interests if you don’t have a communication system that’s open to your views. Without net neutrality we’re facing a real likelihood of censorship, but I’m hopeful that we’re seeing an increasingly engaged public that wants to push back against the corporate agenda.