Net neutrality in the U.S. is lost. Now what?

You know it’s been a seismic day for free expression on the web when Disney buys most of 21st Century Fox, the New York Times names a new publisher, and those events barely even register as news.

Alas, for good reason, all else pales next to the Federal Communications Commission’s big decision today. By a 3-2 vote along party lines it killed net neutrality in the United States. The decision will be challenged vigorously in court, which offers a glimmer of hope. But for now we must assume the old rules requiring an internet service provider (ISP for short) to treat all information flowing across its network equally are over in the U.S.

This decision, which will adversely affect the average person’s access to news, entertainment, and other information, is a topic I’m sure Indizr will return to again and again in coming months. Like everyone else who loves the open web, I’m profoundly saddened today. But in the initial hours after the FCC vote, there are some other emotions mixed in as well for me.

On a bittersweet note, this news validates Indizr’s foundational premise that free speech, hacking, and privacy are the three related pillars of digital independence in general.

At first glance, net neutrality is a very technical issue — a hacker’s issue — and so many non-geeks probably tuned it out at first. Then again, net neutrality ultimately affects free expression too, as a lot of people are coming to realize far too late. (Given free reign by regulators, I’d also bet ISPs will now veer into all sorts of new privacy debacles as well. We’ll see.)

Our society (and, crucially, our existing tech press) was basically incapable of having such a holistic, cross-disciplinary conversation while this issue was pending. Pollsters found that, when they exposed respondents to arguments on both sides of net neutrality, more than 80 percent favored keeping the old rules in place.

But the fact still stands that the pollsters had to school people a little bit in the first place — which was the real problem. By default, without any assistance, the average person on the street’s eyes were always going to glaze over at the mention of “net neutrality.” And that realpolitik is what the cynical industry types ultimately counted on to ram a repeal down everyone’s throat. They just assumed most people wouldn’t notice or understand, or that they could be snowed into thinking it was a good thing for the man on the street.

To keep this sort of hoodwink from happening again in the future on similar policy issues, we’ll need someplace on the web to have broad-based conversations about tech more regularly, more often, bringing both geeks and “normals” together, regularly highlighting the relationships between the different aspects of digital independence. Then we won’t get fooled again.

That’s the sort of forum I want to build Indizr into over time.

It was also striking to me as I watched today’s FCC meeting that Chairman Ajit Pai, as he was busy handing more power to the ISP oligarchy, referred directly to the oligarchy of consumer internet software and services companies as justification.

In his remarks at the meeting, Pai said:

Some Silicon Valley platforms — giants — support imposing heavy-handed regulations on other parts of the internet ecosystem. But all too often, they don’t practice what they preach.

Edge providers regularly block content that they don’t like. When you go online, do you decide what news, search results, and products you see? Perhaps not. They regularly decide what you see and, perhaps more importantly, what you don’t. And many thrive on the business model of charging to place content in front of eyeballs.

What else is Accelerated Mobile Pages, or Promoted Tweets, but prioritization?

What is worse, there is no transparency into how decisions that appear inconsistent with an open internet are made. How does a company decide to restrict someone’s account or block their tweets because it thinks their views are inflammatory or wrong? How does a company decide to de-monetize videos for political advocates without any notice? How does a company expressly block access to websites on rival devices or prevent dissidents’ content from appearing on its platform? How does a company decide to block from its app store Cigar Aficionado’s app, apparently because the company believes that the app promotes tobacco use?

You don’t have any insight into any of these decisions, and neither do I. Yet these are very real, actual threats to an open internet.

It won’t surprise anyone who reads Indizr regularly that I mostly agree with Pai’s premise about Silicon Valley. Its oligarchies and their behavior are indeed worrisome.

I disagree starkly with Pai, however, on what the proper solution to that problem should be. In my opinion, it shouldn’t be to strengthen the ISP oligarchy in parallel to Silicon Valley’s oligarchy on consumer services.

No, the solution should be to be to break up both layers of oligarchy. I don’t necessarily think that goal should be achieved entirely by government fiat, mind you. I’d prefer consumers made smarter choices on their own in the marketplace to shift their time and spending away from oligarchies. And I’m trying actively to do my part to inform and educate users to do just that.

But in some cases, yes, good policy also has a role to play in fixing the broader state of the internet. The FCC failed to hold up its part of that bargain today.