US Big Cable has once again made a big show of supporting net neutrality. But don’t be fooled. Behind the scenes, they are waging a dirty tricks campaign to get laws protecting net neutrality thrown out.
When websites around the world held a day of action on July 12 to stand up for a free and open internet, major carriers AT&T and Comcast joined in. They published gushing messages on their websites, saying we’re right there with you, comrades.
But both companies are part of a concerted campaign to overturn the so-called Title II laws (see below) which make it illegal for broadband carriers to profit from selling different levels of service at different rates. In other words, they are fighting against laws which protect net neutrality.
AT&T went so far as to urge visitors to join in their fight on the same ‘Open Internet’ page they used to trumpet their supposed support for net neutrality. They published a form people could fill in to lobby the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), using pre-written messages drafted by AT&T’s legal team.
Comcast, meanwhile, despite its own declaration in favor of net neutrality, has been accused of using underhand ‘astroturfing’ tactics to lobby the FCC with fake messages. It has been bombarding the FCC with what appear to be submissions from the general public asking for Title II to be overturned, when in fact the messages come straight from Comcast.
So what exactly is Big Cable up to?
The battle for Net Neutrality
All of the lobbying companies like AT&T and Comcast are involved in centers on a change in the law passed in 2015. The change saw internet service providers (ISPs) reclassified as public utilities, putting them in the same category as telephone companies. The reclassification was made under Title II of the Communications Act of 1934 – hence all the talk about ‘Title II’ laws.
ISPs did not like this change. They fought it tooth and nail, and through their trade body US Telecoms, took to the courts.
Why go to all that trouble?
What Big Cable hates about Title II is that it makes them subject to laws on equality of service. As public utilities, they have to provide open, equal access to internet services to all – in other words, they have to uphold net neutrality.
This gets in the way of what they see as an opportunity to make money. Without Title II regulations, they could provide different levels of service depending on what customers were prepared to pay. The websites with the deepest pockets would be given the most bandwidth and the best connection speeds, pushing everyone else to the fringes.
Big Cable will do anything to overturn the laws that protect net neutrality and prevent profiteering.
There is even the possibility ISPs would help favoured customers by deliberately hampering or blocking the services of rival websites. They are more than capable of doing it. During a high profile spat between the two companies, Netflix streaming speeds on Comcast broadband dropped by up to 30 per cent.
Giving ISPs the freedom to flex their muscles like this would be a disaster for the internet as we know it. The web would no longer be open for everyone, what we view and access would be dictated by the commercial interests of Big Cable. Small businesses, clubs, charities and private citizens running their own websites just for the fun of it would be squeezed out as the corporate dollar took control.
Big Cable tries to argue that its opposition to Title II has got nothing to do with net neutrality. It makes the standard whine about regulation getting in the way of innovation and investment. It even tries to use the age of the Communications Act as an excuse, claiming an 80-year old law is not fit for purpose in the 21st century.
Many respected figures in telecommunications don’t believe a word of it and believe that Title II is all that is guaranteeing net neutrality in the US. Former FCC chief Tim Wheeler has also argued that scrapping Title II would lead to Big Cable tightening its grip on the market, creating a monopoly in internet services and denying consumers real choice.
If ISPs are, as they claim, only interested in replacing Title II with a new law that protects net neutrality, why resort to underhand lobbying tactics? Astroturfing is used to create the impression of mass support for an idea where there is none. The only people who are strongly opposed to Title II are the big ISPs. For everyone else, an 80-year old law ensuring the internet remains free and open is just fine.
Sadly, Big Cable is not quite alone in its opposition to Title II. Since the change of occupancy at the White House, and with a new chief in charge, the FCC has done an about-face and now actively supports a repeal of the 2015 reclassification of ISPs as public utilities.
Unfortunately for consumers, the FCC now supports a repeal of the reclassification of ISPs as public utilities.
The Trump administration has already shown it is in the pocket of Big Cable by throwing out internet privacy regulations brought in under Obama. Now, with their man at the helm of the FCC, the future of Title II looks increasingly bleak.
And if the fate of US healthcare is anything to go by – don’t be betting there’s a new bill on net neutrality ready and waiting waiting to replace it.
Image credit: Backbone Campaign on Flickr.