This story made some sense in 2005, when the FCC first offered positive policy guidance on net neutrality. The dot-com crash was a recent memory, Google had just gone public, and News Corp had just acquired the big social-network company of the time—Myspace. It made some sense in 2008, too, when the FCC pursued Comcast over BitTorrent, and in 2012 when AT&T blocked FaceTime. It even made some sense in 2015, when common carriage for ISPs was formally established. Net neutrality’s popularity has always relied on the public’s satisfaction with life online, and the business practices that facilitated it. Otherwise, there would be no reason to protect it from supposed destruction.
Until recently, that satisfaction was almost universal. Companies like Google and Facebook enjoyed widespread public trust and support. They often appeared to share the same “free and open” values that net-neutrality proponents celebrate. By contrast, everyone loves to hate telcos like AT&T, Comcast, and Verizon, old-economy oligopolies with terrible customer service that charge high prices for mediocre services.
But that’s changed over the last year, as security breaches, privacy violations, election meddling, wealth inequality, and a host of other concerns have sullied the tech sector’s reputation. The examples are so numerous it’s impossible to list them anymore. Here’s an ironic example: Hundreds of thousands of stolen and fraudulent identities reportedly corrupted the FCC’s own net-neutrality comment process. Or consider two cases that came to light just yesterday, the same day Pai announced the FCC’s plans to gut net neutrality: Android devices apparently have been sending their users’ locations back to Google, even with location services disabled; and Uber reportedly paid hackers $100,000 to cover up a personal-data breach of 57 million of its customers. A public darling during the Obama years, when net neutrality won out, the tech industry has effectively become Big Tech, an aggressor industry along the lines of pharmaceuticals, oil, or tobacco.
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It’s true that one set of giant internet companies, like Comcast and Verizon, can’t currently mess with what people read, watch, and explore online. But another faction of giant internet companies can and do exert that power and control. Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, and others manage access to most of the content created and delivered via broadband and wireless networks. Google appears to handle over 63 percent of searches, and it is projected to control 80 percent of the search ad market by 2019. Facebook exerts enormous control over access to news online, and its unmanaged ad network appears to have torn democracy asunder.
Net-neutrality telecommunications policy might benefit the public by providing impartial access to online services. But even so, Big Tech’s stranglehold on those services puts the lie to the underlying freedom and openness those services ultimately offer. When it comes to ISPs, a more effective solution would involve local-loop unbundling—requiring telcos to lease last-mile connections to competitors. Even if that worked and a thousand broadband providers bloomed, the internet would still operate in fundamentally the same way. All the internet Davids might not have to pay for placement with the telco giants, but they must do so to the tech Goliaths.