The Decline of Net Neutrality Activism
For many years, telecom and Net Neutrality-related policies have been a hot-button political issue for me, to the extent that I, an ordinary software engineer at Microsoft have been blocked on Twitter by former FCC chairman Ajit Pai because I tweeted support for Net Neutrality publicly.
I also noticed that Net Neutrality is less of a hot-button topic than it was, presumably because of a deadlocked FCC that couldn’t pass anything. Or maybe because, the media would rather hype up “Big Tech” antitrust and the internet policy discussion in congress nowadays is all about Google or TikTok.
Just a few hours ago, Gigi Sohn, someone who’s actually competent enough to stand up to Big Telecom monopolies, had withdrawn her nomination. Why? because the telecom lobby fought tooth and nail, and even resorted to homophobia just to prevent themselves from being regulated.
This is a classical case of not just regulatory capture, but also the media ignoring telecom monopolies (yay, media telecom consolidation) to focus on fighting Big Tech, so they can nickel and dime Big Tech and us.
While the FCC was deadlocked, I also noticed something: I kinda stopped following telecom policy-related topics on my own. The Net Neutrality activism scene of the 2010s kinda died out this decade.
I am a strong Net Neutrality supporter. In fact I fully believe not just in Net Neutrality but in a FCC willing to stand up to Comcast, AT&T, and T-Mobile.
During the Obama era, we got Net Neutrality and broadband privacy laws, and stopped the Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger. These are big achievements. But why did this energy die out? I don’t have a definite answer, but I can give a few points.
Deadlocked FCC & Regulatory Capture
Because Biden wanted someone strong enough to fight Big Telecom in the FCC, telecom lobbyists and Fox News came around to attack Gigi Sohn, someone who’s actually competent to run the FCC, just to avoid regulations. Not a good way to run the country, but that’s the sad but obvious truth of the US political system.
A lot of the issue was also initially the 50-50 Senate where Republicans could fight the nomination, and even when we no longer have a deadlocked Senate, conservative Democrat Joe Manchin opposed her anyways. Even Ajit Pai, a very partisan far-right (and unpopular) candidate didn’t get this much opposition.
While the FCC was deadlocked, the FCC couldn’t tackle partisan topics such as Net Neutrality. This is how I forgot about the FCC for about two or so years.
The media can play a big role in how the public perceives things. The media now is focused on anti-Big Tech, presumably because they want Big Tech to pay them for links.
But they focus less on Big Telecom. A lot of media companies are also telecom companies, or benefit from their monopolies, just look at Comcast-NBCUniversial-Sky, or formerly AT&T-WarnerMedia or Verizon-Yahoo.
And in turn, most people don’t care that the FCC is deadlocked. They get riled up about Big Tech despite using Big Tech every day. After all, your mom isn’t rushing to give up mainstream services for smaller FOSS alternatives.
I’m not saying Big Tech is perfect. Heck, if I didn’t work at Microsoft (or left), I would run everything entirely on Linux and open source software, but Microsoft still pays the bills nevertheless, and leaving while theoritically possible isn’t really an option right now (look at Tech layoffs).
ISPs don’t have “Fast lanes” and “Slow lanes”
A big worry during the Net Neutrality debate was the possibility about having “fast lanes” and “slow lanes”, where a website could pay to be in a fast lane.
US ISPs have a reason not to do this: if they did, people would revolt and that could make Net Neutrality bipartisan. Or states could mandate Net Neutrality in law.
It could also be state Net Neutrality laws were effective. Big Telecom covers both Blue and Red states, and to them it’s easier to centralize policies than to have fast lanes in Texas but not in California.
State laws aren’t perfect: remember New York’s $15 broadband? Courts threw it out since while courts said states can enforce Net Neutrality, they can’t regulate broadband prices. If the FCC had their Title II on broadband, states may have the rights to regulate prices.
And even then, some subtle violations do occur. Look at mobile video throttling, not to mention a list of them post-2018. One example which really hit me during working remotely: having T-Mobile increase the latency of Cloudflare’s 22.214.171.124 VPN during RDP sessions.
I have run LineageOS on-and-off on my phone, and one feature I used during the pandemic is the VPN hotspot which is how I can bypass hotspot restrictions. Well, if I RDP into my work PC outside of home, the VPN latency goes from 80-200 ms to 400-1000 ms.
Going back to Net Neutrality, even if we don’t have the dystopian fast lane and slow lane world, that doesn’t mean all regulations are bad. The only reason why we don’t have them is because they fear regulation on any level of government when angry Internet users ask their legislators “why is Reddit slow”?
Pandemic and Recession
Net Neutrality can easily be ignored during the pandemic and recession, which does makes sense, people were in a health crisis and now in an economic one. In turn, government resources and public attention in the past three yeare were focused in these places and not in the FCC.
With the recession, while Comcast is expensive, recession makes everything more expensive regardless, and people may not even have a job, assuming they didn’t die from COVID.
Does this make Net Neutrality less important? NO. But while we fought COVID-19, the public largely forgot about Net Neutrality, even when in a work from home world, Net Neutrality is still as important as it was. In fact, it is more important if we are using our home connections more than our office ones.
After all, what happens if your job uses services that have poor peering with Spectrum or Verizon? What happens if VPNs are also throttled or have poor peering to your ISP?
Just because Net Neutrality is no longer a hot button topic does not make it any less important. Net Neutrality is still as important as it was, because broadband is a utility, even if it’s not legally classified as one.
We need Internet for anything. There’s a reason why everyone has roads, power, water, gas, and landline telephone, but also why not everyone has access to cable TV. We shouldn’t treat broadband like cable TV, but like electricity, but we sadly still treat it as a “luxury” in the government.
Sadly people have a short attention span. We may have a fleeting mention of Net Neutrality in the media now, and then people forget about it. Sadly, Net Neutrality hasn’t remained a hot button topic issue unlike guns, or abortion, or trans rights which get their respective bases fired up.
Even if Gigi Sohn wasn’t confirmed, I still believe the Internet should push for strong FCC regulations anyways. We got Title II Net Neutrality (even if only for 3 years) because the Internet got louder than the cable lobby, and the FCC couldn’t ignore public opinion then.