Posted by: Mark Nielsen | December 15, 2017

Net Neutrality: The Blind Leading the Blind?


I started out putting portions of the political opinion piece below onto another person’s Facebook post, his general inquiry about his Friends’ stance on net neutrality. I ended up blathering on far too long… so I decided to paste it over to the Marking Time blog, so that it wouldn’t be lost in the ether of the Facebook Temporary Universe forever, with an expiration date of about eight hours, tops.

So here, with a warning that it’s not necessarily well researched or carefully edited, is the sum total of my life’s gathered thoughts on media conglomerates, the internet, and the role of government in regulating our lives (and in keeping watch over the companies which spend big money to get our attention, so that we will give them still more money) :

A big part of the issue with net neutrality is monopolies, where the big players know their holdings or history or partnerships are not known to the general public with any clarity. Hulu, for example, is co-owned by several networks or companies which would seem to be competitors, like NBC Universal, Disney/ABC, and Fox.  But soon we find out we’re beyond the realm of traditional broadcast tv. Broadcasters, content creators, advertisers, electronic hardware manufacturers, telecom companies and government stakeholders have all blurred the lines that used to separate them. For example, Trump’s FCC Chairman,  Ajit Pai, is a former Verizon legal counsel.

So the danger of especially broadband/cable companies having the handcuffs removed regarding what they owe the public, is that soon they  are setting their own rules (and prices), driving the smaller players out of business. Eventually it could involve control of information too, subtly, in terms of who even sees/hears dissenting or accurate messages, or participates in a specific marketplace. It’s bad for privacy, for competition, for democracy and for tech infrastructure and innovation.

As for those who think governments need to get out of our “business” in general, tell that to the people of Flint, Michigan whose conservative governor not long ago ruined their water, probably by entrusting a private consultant or trying to cut corners like some ordinary business.

This net thing too is about good/careful governance vs. corrupt/inept  governance, not less vs. more governance. It’s about better oversight, fewer back-room deals, and whether consumers and unbiased expert voices will even be heard …over the din of lobbyists and profit-motivated companies with their rhetoric machines well-entrenched.

The internet is approaching “public utility” status, but in contrast this is looking like the Disneyfication of America. Thus, creating/enabling a pro-corporate FCC is no different than misunderstanding how a Clinton/Bush pro-corporate, de-regulated SEC and Treasury Depts led to the 2008 financial collapse, or how the toothless current EPA lets the energy industry run roughshod over us (and the planet). The answer is better regulations, created and enforced by impartial and informed consumer advocates, legislators, judges, etc …not *fewer regulations* or lax enforcement (see the dozens of pro-monopoly “loopholes”, especially in the tax code).

If govt (and a bought-off Congress) stops even trying to create conditions for a level playing field in key industries, then who’s gonna mind the store? We likely can’t get net neutrality back, from a tech perspective, once we give it away. Equality gaps will just continue to widen, mostly because of the high learning curve in IT and telecom, plus fewer high-quality watchdogs within government keeping an eye on the common good.

The “pro-competition” myth/lie of the Republican platform is clear here, when *the inventors of the internet itself* are warning us this net neutrality deregulation is anti-competitive.

And yes, corruption or “pork” or ineptitude are rampant in both parties (and in unions, and in corporations, etc). But the principle –that I am a citizen in need of some *protections*, not a consumer with a target on my back (and with nothing but a slingshot to defend my interest in truth, privacy, diversity, innovation and controlled costs)– this principle or ideal still holds true.

The law was created to limit kings (govt), and yet also to limit kings of industry (who resist fair governance if it costs too much [see taxation, safety compliance, wage regulation, etc] ).

Since NASA and the military and public funds (say public universities, or govt grants and contracts) were the *originators* of much of this internet and satellite tech (i.e. if my taxes paid for the building blocks), then I deserve ongoing say-so on how my investments (or those of my parents) benefit the majority population in the future. Free markets are not inherently moral. Such big money being at stake creates potential corruption, and some would say capitalism defaults to inequality by its very nature.

Plus I’m not inclined to trust cable CEOs and Murdochs in collusion with each other, or colluding with government de-regulators (who in four to eight years will work for the very companies they’re granting favors to now). FCC Chair Pai defended white collar criminals like Lehman Brothers before he came into government, and in my view he’s still doing it.

Yes, I’m simplifying. But the public record under net neutrality at least provides the info/content I can see for myself and interpret this way. Yet if the distribution channels for that info itself are up for sale to the highest bidders, if ONLY  the HOLY MARKET rules in ALL cases… then how long till we are ONLY seeing/hearing/reading/knowing what our Big Brothers *want* known?  What may result of this erosion of oversight (witness also how many presidential appointments in all governmental departments are still unfilled, a year into Trump’s term)  is not suppression of information or free speech thru govt action, but public ignorance by default, and/or thru corporate “narrowcasting”. We won’t know what content/info we’ve lost, because it never got made, or it’s too hard to find, or to disseminate.

When everything is “members only”, who are the real winners? I’d like to be able to watch the new Star Trek tv series, for example. But I can’t justify the monthly CBS Streaming subscription fee.

Meanwhile, while we’re not looking, what may be gaining a foothold this week is BIG DATA (a vague entity not unlike Big Pharma), those marketing and demographic data processors who help power elites even beyond the above media moguls preach to and market to and filter and delude a choir they themselves created: a smallish choir, a measured and managed one, one which can afford their premium services. In internet usage, or at least in ease of access, there will eventually be a two-tiered system, in one more area of American life where there didn’t used to be. We don’t have members-only roads, or sewers. So why are Time Warner Cable, Comcast/NBC/Beelzebub, Verizon and T-Mobile allowed to re-package and inequitably carve up the main means of staying informed, paying a monthly bill, or keeping in touch with grandma?

Unbiased journalism is already almost dead. Who will be the new gatekeepers of honest communication, and the providers of affordable but still effective service?

What are the non-monetary costs of our eventual difficulty in finding fair and *affordable* access, especially to *unbiased, unpopular or controversial* content?

By comparison, have we looked into the undemocratic b.s. China is doing in their control of internet content and access?

Again, I’m oversimplifying. Neutrality itself is a myth, in public policy and economics especially.

Everyone has an agenda.

But unquestioned trust in this vague idea of “competition” implies that everyone competes fairly and plays by the same rules. Yet that has not been the case. So throwing away an imperfect rule, in favor of no rule at all [i.e. de-regulation, in any industry but especially in the media, which pays big money to shape our very perceptions], is a step in the wrong direction. It only benefits the greedy minority looking to perpetuate confusion, and thus cravenly increase an already alarming disparity between those with power, influence and clarity, and those with none.

Nor have I even mentioned the other big players, the Amazonians, Facebooks, Twits and Googles of this new Wild West. On that, for now, I’ll point you toward an interesting, shorter article called The Dopamine Economy: The Mad Men Created Consumers. We’ve Created Algorithmic Addicts, by Umair Haque.


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