Amidst the intense debate over the future of net neutrality regulations, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai in a speech today accused influential Silicon Valley companies like Twitter of engaging in internet content discrimination for ideological reasons.
The potential rollback of the 2015 net neutrality rules should come as no surprise to the media industry. Upon taking over as FCC chair when Donald Trump became president, Ajit Pai made it clear that net neutrality and other rules that he considered interfering with free-market innovation and competition were on the chopping block. In December 2016, Pai gave a speech in which he said that “We need to fire up the weed whacker and remove those rules that are holding back investment, innovation, and job creation,” the Los Angeles Times reported at the time.
The FCC, which now has Republican majority, is expected to vote on a repeal of net neutrality during its December 14 open meeting. The agency took the initial step in neutralizing, as it were, net neutrality in May.
In a party line vote on February 26, 2015, with the Democrats holding the majority at the time, the FCC voted 3-2 in favor of a complicated 300-plus-page set of regulations that reclassifies Internet Service Providers as so-called common carriers or public utilities, like old-time phone companies, thereby making them subject to federal government regulation. The FCC derived its regulatory authority to do so from Title II of the vintage Communications Act of 1934.
Most “Big Social” tech companies favor net neutrality, while most broadband providers — particularly smaller ones — oppose it. It’s difficult to know how all this actually affects the ordinary consumer or business, neither of which, in general, is necessarily a fan of either industry group. At the risk of oversimplification, to some degree it may come down to who is best situated to take the lead in internet operations: the government or the private sector.
“Internet companies and activists see the undoing of net neutrality as an invitation for corporate abuse, in which service providers block websites they do not like and charge Web companies for speedier delivery of their content,” the Washington Post explained.
In his speech at the Future of Internet Freedom conference in Washington, D.C., Ajit Pai took on Twitter and other so-called edge providers, Broadcasting & Cable reported.
“Now look: I love Twitter, and I use it all the time. But let’s not kid ourselves; when it comes to an open Internet, Twitter is part of the problem. The company has a viewpoint and uses that viewpoint to discriminate….And to say the least, the company appears to have a double standard when it comes to suspending or de-verifying conservative users’ accounts as opposed to those of liberal users. This conduct is many things, but it isn’t fighting for an open Internet. [D]espite all the talk about the fear that broadband providers could decide what Internet content consumers can see, recent experience shows that so-called edge providers are in fact deciding what content they see. These providers routinely block or discriminate against content they don’t like.”
Perhaps what Ajit Pai is referring to is that Twitter has been accused of suspending or shadow banning individuals and throttling tweets that don’t fit within a progressive agenda. Google-owned YouTube has also been accused of arbitrarily demonetizing the channels of legitimate conservative and libertarian commentators. During the 2016 presidential campaign, allegations emerged that Google allegedly manipulated auto-complete search results to bury negative information about Hillary Clinton. Last year, Facebook implemented new curation procedures after it appeared to be censoring conservative-oriented news from its trending topics feed.
A Silicon Valley executive disagreed strongly with what Ajit Pai had to say, however.
“Chairman Pai’s attack on Twitter is like a boxer losing a fight and taking wild and erratic swings. Preventing hate speech and bullying behavior online is not the same thing as allowing cable companies to block, throttle and extort money from consumers and the websites they love. Twitter is an amazing platform for left, right and center. Donald Trump might not be President without it, and Chairman Pai’s plan to kill net neutrality will put Comcast and AT&T in charge of his Twitter account.”
Pai also assailed the big Silicon Valley firms for “caving to repressive foreign governments’ demands to block certain speech,” Breitbart News reported.
According to the Washington Post, Ajit Pai’s family has been targeted for harassment by pro-net neutrality activists demonstrating outside his residence. One of the signs accused the chairman of “murdering democracy in cold blood.” Pai has also received numerous abusive messages on social media.
Chairman Ajit Pai has insisted that he favors a light-touch regulation regime and giving jurisdiction over ISPs back to the Federal Trade Commission. He has also argued that getting rid of net neutrality is actually the opposite of authoritarianism.
According to a Bloomberg technology columnist, the net neutrality controversy is much ado about nothing because net neutrality is or was already dead as a practical matter.
“The reality is big companies do have a privileged path into people’s digital lives. They have the money and the technical ability to make sure their websites and internet videos speed through internet pipes without delays or hiccups…. Big and popular companies have privileged positions in today’s internet, no matter how the rules are written and enforced.”
Similarly, a Boston Globe columnist compared the net neutrality controversy to the Y2K hysteria, claiming that very little will change after December 14.
“Serious breaches of Net neutrality are pretty hard to find…Meanwhile, all too slowly, the real solution to the network neutrality problem is taking hold: broadband competition….What Internet company would put itself in the crosshairs of public outrage, just to gain a slight and temporary advantage over a rival? Maybe the carriers aren’t noble and decent, but they aren’t dumb, either.”