The repeal of net neutrality rules threatens democracy

We would not want a planet where a handful of media ‘content providers’ with commercial interests in cable companies and internet service providers were able to stifle alternative opinions

Friday 15 December 2017 16:26
There's a chance that the FCC’s decisions will be revised or reversed by the authorities in some American states
There's a chance that the FCC’s decisions will be revised or reversed by the authorities in some American states

Bigger than Brexit? Few news stories have the potential to rival the UK’s exiting the EU for far-reaching consequences, but the rapidly accelerating changes in the media and digital world certainly have the potential to change the quality of life and economic wellbeing of everyone in Britain.

The internet, which pervades every corner of our lives, is changing. The Disney-Fox merger and the Federal Communications Commission decision to repeal net neutrality rules have profound implications on their own. They won’t be the last of the restructures that could profoundly tip the balance of power – and benefits – of the world wide web, social media and the whole entertainment and news industries away from consumers and citizens and towards oligopolistic business empires, which seem to be growing ever larger as they compete among themselves for market power.

The even greater danger is that some major content producers – and the Disney-Fox combination is an interesting example of such a beast – decides that the time has come to take control over a cable company or other internet service provider. The temptation to favour Disney-Fox content over that of rivals would prove irresistible. While the FCC ruling will primarily affect people in the United States, the example it sets and the influence of so many US-based major players means that it will have some effect globally too.

Of course, no one’s internet service provider is going to start playing games with service provision in the next few days. If the internet as we know it is going to change, it will take longer than that, and will be camouflaged with talk of “prioritisation”, “premium services” and “consumer choice”. Yet the trend towards the restriction of output and of real choice seems now clear. When President Obama’s administration put in place rules to ensure equal access for users and content providers alike, they did so for a reason. It was to protect users from having their choice of information sources, entertainment and the speed of their email and other communications unnecessarily slowed or otherwise affected by commercial bias, seen or unseen. In ditching those safeguards the FCC has, for the United States, opened up the possibility of a world where consumers will need to pay extra for the choice they enjoy today; and, if they cannot, having that choice severely restricted.

In most areas of economic life we are used to the notion that superior provision of a good or service – a hotel room, a car, a meal out – is usually related to price. The internet, however, is of a very different nature, impacting as it does on the very workings of democracy – already compromised in the US – and the basis of consumer choice. It is the means by which consumers can make informed decisions about so much in their lives – and to give effect to those choices via email and through e-commerce.

The internet, while not as vital to life as running water or electricity, is certainly more of a basic utility service than most commercial activities. We know the effect it has on democratic decision-making, and how important it is as a method that allows so many voices, individuals and groups to protest and agitate for change. The Independent is only one of so many media organisations that help to create a plurality of voices.

We also know how those liberties are abused in the digital sphere, but no one would want to live in a world where the creative anarchy of ideas that does so much to enliven debate and politics generally disappeared. We would not, for example, want a planet where a handful of giant media “content providers” with commercial interests in cable companies and internet service providers were able to stifle alternative opinions and evidence about, say, Russian interference in American presidential elections.

As print and traditional broadcasting continue to decline, the opportunity for global market power over converging digital media information is unprecedented. It requires unprecedented vigilance by the authorities to monitor and push back against the encroaching power of commercial giants; yet the FCC has instead begun to abdicate its responsibilities.

There is a chance that the FCC’s decisions will be revised or reversed by the authorities in some American states, and through court challenges from those smaller players and consumers who fear the detriment they will undoubtedly suffer in the new world. Should that fail to stop this slow destruction of internet freedoms, then there is perhaps the prospect that the internet will adapt to the injuries it is to suffer, and self-heal through the activities of its users. New entrants might well respond to consumer demand for the free and fair provision of news and entertainment, for rapid payment methods and email services, bypassing the oligopolies. Yet the short history of the internet, contrary to the earliest expectations, has shown that Facebook and Google's market dominance, compared to their earlier counterparts such as Yahoo and Myspace, are not easily challenged by new entrants, and that the barriers to entry in the digital field are, if anything, even greater than in old-fashioned industries such as steel or chemicals.

A century of or so ago, those older industries – at the time also banking, the railroads and oil – were the ones, like the internet now, becoming dominated by a few famously vast corporations with fabulously wealthy individuals at their head. In response to a public grown angry by their abuse of economic power and political influence, the political parties of the day vied with each other in their zeal to break up and restrain these commercial behemoths.

The “trust-busters” took over the White House and Congress and passed antitrust legislation that serves as a timeless model and example to those in power in Washington and elsewhere today. The time will come again when the public, in America and around the world, grows tired of unaccountable corporate power. They, as voters as well as consumers and web-users, will demand that their rights to equal access on the internet are preserved. President Trump will not be thanked for his support for the FCC’s rash and unpopular initiative.

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