Science & Tech

Debating Net Neutrality: Big-Tech Monopolies Are the Real Problem

(Aly Song/Reuters)
If we’re focusing on peripheral issues, such as Internet service providers, we’re going to come up with bad solutions.

The recent debates over Internet-related policymaking in Washington, D.C., increasingly resemble a funhouse world. Issues that are actually important, such as the monopoly market and speech-squelching power of big-tech firms such as Facebook and Twitter, are treated as peripheral. Meanwhile, sideshows, such as the theoretical but never-exercised ability of Internet service providers (ISPs) to block access to content providers, are treated as central issues to debate.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee recently debated the Save the Internet Act of 2019, which would restore the Obama-era FCC Open Internet regulations, known as “net neutrality.” Today is the one-year anniversary of the net-neutrality repeal taking effect, supposedly ushering in, critics warned, “the death of the Internet.”

Discussing the Save the Internet Act, ranking Republican Greg Walden warned, “Americans are more and more concerned about the role tech companies play.” These companies, he argued, have “blocked, prioritized, or shadow banned” content while receiving “special protection under Section 230 [of the Communications Decency Act] as if they were a common carrier, but they are not covered by the net neutrality rules.”

The sponsor of Save the Internet Act, Representative Mike Doyle (D., Penn,), responded that discussing edge providers (dominant platforms and gateways for Internet content such as Google, Apple, or Facebook) in a net-neutrality debate was a distraction, as he was interested only in addressing the Obama-era rule-making, which focused on ISPs. However, it is revealing that many of the bill’s supporters have portrayed it as actually cracking down on big tech, even though Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Twitter are all lobbying for it.

The Democrats’ obsession with ISPs as the group that should be regulated by net-neutrality rules isn’t exactly the equivalent of locking the barn door after the cow has already escaped. It’s more like locking the door of a barn the cow never lived in, while ignoring the unlocked door of the barn where the cow actually resides, allowing it to get hopelessly lost somewhere in the countryside.

Well, now that we’ve lost the cow, we definitely don’t need the Democrats’ net-neutrality bull. Yet that’s just what we’re continuing to get from Democrats, most of whom can’t seem to adjust their mental model to address the fact that it is their “friends” at Google, Facebook, and Twitter who present the greatest risk to freedom of choice on the Internet today.

In a video promoting the “Net Neutrality Day of Action,” the activist group Fight for the Future warned that the FCC “handed corporate monopolies unprecedented power over what we can see and do online” when it repealed the Open Internet order in June 2018; the video then showed an image of Mark Zuckerberg nervously sipping water while testifying before Congress. The video gives the clear impression that Facebook is among the speech-controlling monopolies that net-neutrality protections would curb. Last year, Fight for the Future argued that “if you don’t like Facebook’s algorithm or Google’s search results, then killing net neutrality just means you’ll be stuck with them forever.” It’s no surprise that net-neutrality proponents have to disguise the actual targets of their legislation to build its popularity — but it is revealing.

Such confusion is aided and abetted not just by activist groups but by an often ill-informed liberal media. Freshman senator Josh Hawley (R., Mo.) has, in less than a year in office, established himself as the leading congressional voice in either party against Silicon Valley’s monopoly power, privacy violations, and bias. However, numerous Missouri newspapers recently ran an editorial arguing that “if Hawley really wants to arm for bear against big tech, he could target internet service providers that would seek to limit customers from accessing whatever they choose.” The editorial goes on to champion the Save the Internet Act. Fortunately, Hawley actually understands the source of the big-tech problem, even if many of his home-state newspapers don’t.

When Eric Trump noted that Google and Facebook have monopoly power and should not engage in censorship, Think Progress, the Center for American Progress’s website, claimed that the president’s son “accidentally makes a case for net neutrality” because this amounted to arguing “that large telecommunications giants should be treated as common carriers.”

Intentionally or not, by conflating ISPs with monopolistic tech platforms, these activists and news organizations do the entire debate on net neutrality a great disservice. It’s true that ISPs should not have the power to block, throttle, or charge for prioritized content on ideological grounds or anti-competitive grounds. But this has not occurred, with or without net-neutrality regulations. In contrast, the very same tech giants who lobby for these net-neutrality regulations engage in this behavior on a daily basis.

For example:

  • Senior Mozilla employees and engineers have recently accused Google of sabotaging Firefox — slowing down YouTube videos or causing bugs in Gmail and Google Docs on Firefox, which benefits Google’s Chrome.
  • Amazon blocks or stops selling Apple TV and Google’s Chromecast on the Amazon website, in retaliation for those companies’ refusal to allow Amazon Prime Video on their devices.
  • Google pays Apple billions of dollars each year to make its search engine the default on Safari and Siri.

Defenders of this double standard argue that there is a big difference between dominant platforms and ISPs. As Slate’s April Glaser wrote, “equal access to any one website or platform isn’t the same thing as equal access to the internet writ large.” Yet for small businesses or people who want to engage in political speech, being kicked off of a dominant platform is effectively Internet death, something confirmed by the dramatically reduced influence of several right-wing media figures who have been deplatformed from Facebook or Twitter.

When over 90 percent of people use Google search, having Google block or throttle one’s content is far more damaging than being blocked by an ISP, especially as the vast majority of consumers have at least some choice of ISPs and the largest broadband provider, Comcast, has less than a 24 percent market share. Meanwhile, according to one recent estimate, over 70 percent of Internet traffic currently goes through websites controlled by either Facebook or Google.

This does not mean we need a laissez-faire policy toward ISPs, but it does mean we can’t have a serious discussion of online gatekeepers without discussing dominant platforms such as Google, Apple, or Facebook.

Despite the dismal state of the public debate on net neutrality, there is actually some hope for a bipartisan solution. Democratic senator Kyrsten Sinema is looking to collaborate with Republicans on net neutrality, as are 47 House Democrats who called for a bipartisan working group on the issue. A sensible starting point would be to advocate the same non-discrimination principles, both for free speech and open competition, across all the Internet, including the big-tech companies such as Amazon, Facebook, and Twitter — and not just for the ISPs.

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