Friday, February 27, 2015

Net Neutrality, the Mob and the Man

Bill RosenblattBill Rosenblatt Contributor |  479 views

The FCC's vote on Thursday to classify Internet service providers as public utilities was ultimately the result of overwhelming popular support on the Internet. In the end, popular support for net neutrality overwhelmed the lobbying efforts of the cable and telecommunications industries that tried to kill or weaken the regulations. This raises one very big question: why did the online public suddenly embrace what, not two years ago, was called “breaking the Internet”?

This behavior ought to scare people.  The conventional wisdom has long been that government regulation of the Internet was a bad thing. When the media industry pushed for passage of the SOPA and PIPA anti-piracy legislation back in 2011-2012, massive outcry among the Internet population led to the bill’s rapid demise.  Open Internet advocates cried victory, while media industry executives complained about “the mob” and alleged — not without evidence — that the whole thing was an orchestrated campaign among Internet companies like Google GOOGL +2.22%, Wikipedia, and Reddit.

The power of “the mob” to influence legislative and regulatory activity has been growing for years.  A scholar and net activist named Bill Herman researched this for his PhD thesis at the Annenberg School for Communication at Penn in 2009. Herman looked at a series of legislation about digital copyright, such as the Audio Home Recording Act of 1992 and the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998, and he traced an arc of the increasing influence of online communication (as opposed to lobbying and the press) in determining the fate of these bills.  He predicted that the online crowd’s overwhelming preference for looser copyright would eventually overpower the media industry’s lobbying machine — and he was right.  Herman’s rigorous research brilliantly presaged the SOPA and PIPA defeats.  It’s available as a book called The Fight over Digital Rights: The Politics of Copyright and Technology.

But this time around, the mob turned against Republican politicians and libertarian think tanks, and called for government regulation.  When Sen. Ted Cruz’s grandstanded about the FCC reclassification of Internet services as “Obamacare for the Internet,” his Facebook page was bombarded with negative comments… from his supporters.  Think tanks like the Cato Institute, often reliable partners of the tech industry, found themselves howling alone in the wilderness.
But seriously: since when are Open Internet activists in favor of government intervention?  Why aren’t some of them speaking out against it on principle, even while touting net neutrality as an ideal?  What happened to the dream of the Internet as something that renders nation-states obsolete?  Maybe this is the real reason why Google, usually the 800-pound gorilla of the tech industry’s lobbying presence, decided to stay on the sidelines this time around.  (In fact, Google and Comcast both contribute funding to TechFreedom, an obscure think tank whose position is that the FCC’s Title II reclassification breaks the Internet.)

People ought to be looking at what just happened and separating out the substance of the FCC regulation from considerations of why and how the Internet population got so much power and wielded it in what seems like a capricious manner. 

For the record, I’m in favor of net neutrality, and I’m glad that the FCC ruled the way it did. I like freedom and peace and love, too. 

Bill Rosenblatt runs GiantSteps Media Technology Strategies, a consultancy that focuses on digital media technology, business models, and copyright. Check him out on LinkedIn or Twitter.

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