It’s true: the internet is imbalanced. The directional flow of internet content – as in what information reaches which people, and why – is prejudicial, invisible to consumers, and harmful to civic society. The question of who to blame for this, however, is what advocates of net-neutrality get wrong.
Supporters of net-neutrality misguidedly argue that regulating internet service providers (Verizon, AT&T, Comcast – the ISP’s) will ensure a more “free and open” internet. They want the FCC to re-reclassify these ISP’s as Title II public carriers – which is what the Obama-era FCC did in 2015 and the Trump FCC recently rescinded – in order to subject broadband transmission to more intensive oversight. Doing this, they claim, will establish a “neutral” internet, and only by a very limited definition of the phrase are they right.
As proposed, net-neutrality regulation would prohibit two primary situations from arising in the future. One, ISP’s would not be allowed to up-charge, or “throttle,” content producers for transmitting their data (such as when Verizon price–gouged Netflix). And two, ISP’s would not be able to selectively discriminate against, or censor, content that rides over their networks (as a hypothetical, if Verizon refused to transmit the New York Times).
With each situation, the oft cited examples are less than meaningful anti-competitive infringements. Most documented incidents included only short-lived periods of throttling, generally applied to just one or two competing applications, and only in rare cases to websites. By limiting their customers’ content choices, however, such throttling is economically disadvantageous to the ISP’s and hence, it rarely happens. Further, the record proves that American ISP’s (under former, and now resumed FTC oversight) have never succeeded in any substantial, or even politically motivated, informational manipulation. Nevertheless, the witch-hunt against them persists, while the genuinely guilty companies get away scot-free.
Ironically, the same companies who lobbied the loudest for net-neutrality’s passage are themselves the ones who threaten the freedom of web-content access: the content producers. Google, Facebook, and social media companies as a whole, and not the ISP’s, are the real informational gatekeepers online, and they only open and close their gates under selective, highly prejudicial conditions. Here’s how it works.
When you Google a news story, or read through your newsfeed on Facebook, these Internet titans make personalized, algorithm-driven judgment calls about what exactly to show you. By combing through your cookies, search history, and stored records of web-browsing activity, the Big Tech companies attempt to synthesize a portrait of who they think you are, and then display the search results that they think fits. This manifests as conservatives getting shown more conservative news media, liberals seeing more liberal news media, and hence results partisan, informational entrenchment on the internet. This practice is a subtle form of informational determinism; it invisibly shepherds individuals towards bias-confirming content and in the process insulates them from opposing perspectives – a phenomenon known as “Filter Bubbles.” The chief executive of Oxford Information Labs has gone as far as to characterize its effect on democracy as “insidious.”
Since their inception, Americans have had no choice but to live at the behest of Google and Facebook’s civic philosophies. The companies are arguably responsible for the tipping of the 2016 election; providing 67% of Americans with whatever news they think the individual wants to see; and making critical democratic judgment calls about whichever type of content they indefinitely vanquish from their users’ potential viewership. If the FCC, or any governmental leader for that matter, is serious about securing the “freedom” or “neutrality” of the internet, they should not be leaving it in Mark Zuckerberg’s trusty hands. Although in theory it may sound correct, the ISP’s do not, practically speaking, exercise the power of unbalancing the internet. Google and Facebook, do. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that, in a slight-of-hand gesture of deflection, both companies were among the loudest lobbyists on Net Neutrality’s behalf. In my view, Google and Facebook wanted the public to blame the ISP’s for the online manipulation that they themselves were responsible for.
Exploring utility-based regulation for these companies, just on selective services like search or social networking, may, reluctantly, be a necessary oversight in today’s informational ecosystem. Outside of broad, centralized, utility-based regulation, there are also lighter-handed solutions that could be applied on a case-by-case basis. Here are a few examples.
Concerned that Americans are increasingly polarized because they’re only shown “like-minded” journalism when searching online? Delve into or legislate a transparency requirement for Google’s search algorithm. Fearful of misinformation being pervasively propagated through Facebook? Subpoena (or continue to subpoena) Facebook executives and hold them accountable as news providers. Concerned that youth are growing increasingly debilitated and even addicted to social media platforms? Launch congressional investigations into the companies’ irresponsible and ongoing behavioral-modification experiments or, mandate health warnings on their services. ‘But these are gross violations of their right to informational property and independence!’ fellow small-c conservatives will say, ‘It will undermine their business practices and mire economic progress!’ It is a ‘big-government’ solution to impose regulation and demand the compliance of privately owned corporations. Nevertheless, in the interest of combatting their impingement on individuals’ liberties, regulating Big Tech may be a measured and appropriate response.
Accordingly, the current net-neutrality movement should redirect their focus. What, after all, is the underlying principle behind their goal with net-neutrality? What do the supporters want when they aim to classify the net as “neutral”? How are they hoping to defend the liberty of consumers, i.e. the American people? If the driving reason is to protect the civic sphere and ensure the neutrality of access to information online, then clearly the current wave of net-neutrality advocates are targeting the wrong link in the informational supply-chain: they should concentrate on Big Tech, not the ISP’s.
Informational access online is a crucial issue in our country right now. Unfortunately, the time has come for intervention, but just not from the angle that current net-neutrality supporters propose. For now, the Trump FCC rescinding the Obama net-neutrality policy is a positive step. If it hadn’t been rescinded, the public may have mistakenly imagined that the “neutrality” of the internet had actually been secured – duped by the meretricious lobbying of Facebook, Google, and Democrats alike. Perhaps the new administration can be more perspicacious. To do so, they should focus their sights – either with political pressure, transparency legislation, or even utility-based regulation – on the actual net imbalancers in Silicon Valley.