Ahead of the Curve: Resurrecting Net Neutrality

Photo by Thom on Unsplash

Net neutrality officially ended last month. The giant internet service providers (ISPs) now can and will start using their market dominance and mega-billions to channel internet use down pathways that make them more money, reducing the practical information choices available to consumers. Even most Republicans don’t like the outcome, but money talks.

The story isn’t over, though. There are a number of things ordinary people can do to beat back the giants, in reverse order of my preference.

1. Litigation. Attorneys general from twenty-two states have sued the FCC to overturn repeal of the net neutrality rule. I haven’t done enough research to form an opinion about how much chance these lawsuits have, but my first impression is that they face an uphill struggle. It’s not enough just to say “Repealing net neutrality is a bad idea;” the plaintiffs would need to make the case that repeal somehow violates the constitution, or is so off-the-wall as to be arbitrary and capricious. There are at least some plausible arguments for repeal, so I don’t think we can count on this approach.

2. State boycotts. The governor of Montana, Steve Bullock, has issued an executive order decreeing that the state would not do business with an ISP that does not comply with net neutrality rules. Montana is not big enough to push the giant ISPs around, but New York may be and its governor, Andrew Cuomo, has done the same thing, as have several other states. A problem with this approach is that the FCC rule, by its terms, explicitly states that it preempts all contradictory state laws. As it should. Especially for something as oblivious to state lines as the internet, it makes no sense to impose a mishmash of fifty different sets of rules on nationally operating businesses. There will almost certainly be a clash in court between the boycotting states and the ISPs, the outcome of which is hard to predict. And what happens if all of the ISPs big enough to handle New York’s business abandon neutrality at once? What’s the state government supposed to do then—stop using the internet?

3. Government-owned ISPs. A legislator in Hawaii is proposing a bill to study the possibility of creating a state-owned ISP. Some municipalities, like Concord, Massachusetts, have their own government-owned ISPs already. A government-owned ISP that promised net neutrality would have a lot of advantages over the biased service a bloated ISP/content provider will deliver. There is a widely held school of thought, though, that government-owned bureaucracies do not perform as efficiently, and are more prone to improper political pressure, than as those with a profit motive. The arguments on either side have been thrashed out for over a century. But if the object is to create a viable alternative to the ISP elephants, there is little point in adding an extraneous “No communist internet!” argument to the mix. Especially when an alternative exists to create viable and profit-maximizing net neutral competitors.

4. Consumer-owned ISPs. In the early days of the spread of electricity and telephony, rural areas were left behind. This happened not because electric and telephone companies hated farmers, but because it was so much easier to make money in locations with greater population density. To redress the imbalance, the federal government got involved in financing the creation of electric (and a few years later, telephone) cooperatives through the one of the New Deal alphabet agencies, the Rural Electrification Administration (REA). Coops are private, competitive, profit-making enterprises. Their distinguishing feature is that they are owned and controlled by their customers, not by wealthy outside investors, so all their profits are either plowed back into their delivery capacity or returned to their customer-owners in the form of patronage dividends.

Long story short: the plan worked, fabulously well. The electric grid raced rapidly across the countryside, with telephone service not far behind. The repayment record on the government provided loans was exemplary. Millions of rural citizens received service decades before they would have if the free market had been left strictly to its own devices. Electric and telephone coops today, serving over five million customers, provide a level of service every bit as high as their investor owned competitors. Rural electrification is one of the most successful domestic programs in the history of American government.

Do you know what these electric and telephone cooperatives are providing now? Internet service that competes with the greedhead ISPs. The chance of their deviating from neutrality is negligible because they own no content to favor. Besides, their owners wouldn’t stand for it!

That’s lovely, for the rural customers they serve. But what about the rest of us? Why can’t we enjoy the benefit of consumer-owned, consumer-controlled, private sector internet delivery as well? The short answer is we can. It’s even easier and cheaper to provide internet service in a densely populated area than it is out in the boondocks. Last spring, I switched my own internet from one of the big ISPs to a small local company that provides a wireless connection, giving me service that has been cheap, problem-free, and guaranteed neutral. It’s not a coop, but there’s no reason it couldn’t be.

All it takes is political will—the same kind of political will that led to the creation of REA eighty years ago. The best news is the change doesn’t have to run through Washington, DC, the town with the big “Abandon hope, ye who enter here” sign at the entrance. Any state, any county, any municipality can reproduce the REA model and provide the financing catalyst necessary for a neutral utility that will, after a relatively short period, pay for itself.

It’s impossible to prove, but I believe the decentralized internet has been the single biggest factor in breaking the stranglehold of religion on American life by facilitating ordinary people’s thinking for themselves about what’s right and wrong. That blessing now faces an existential threat from the giant ISPs. I hope humanists begin bugging their local legislators, who are far more approachable than the interest groups that control Congress, about copying the REA model on a state and local level to get us back the open internet we need.