Tired of smashing your face into the brick wall that is US net neutrality? Too bad. There's a long way to go yet, friends
Democrats launch new legislation that won't pass, but will cause months of argument
Analysis Here we go again. As promised, Congressional Democrats introduced legislation that would restore America's net neutrality rules, which were overturned by Ajit Pai's FCC, claiming the proposed law would "save the internet."
The Dems even called it the Save the Internet Act of 2019 [PDF].
The draft legislation has a very slim chance of passing unless Democrats persuade Republicans to support it, and so House speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) tried to gain that critical support at a press conference by, um, accusing Republicans of being in the pockets of cable companies, failing to the listen to the will if the people, and restricting people's freedom online.
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And so the issue of net neutrality has taken one step closer to joining the ranks of topics like abortion and gun control that have become so poisoned with partisan politics that even changes with broad public support become impossible to introduce.
Pelosi claimed that, since the Republican-controlled Senate has already passed a similar measure to reverse the reversal of the net neutrality rules, it should be a simple matter for Congress to send the Democrats' law restoring the protections to the president's desk: the Dem-controlled House will rubber-stamp it, and the Senate will green light it like it green lit the earlier measure.
But in the hopelessly stalemated Congress where both parties vote in blocks, there is little chance of her Save the Internet Act passing. There's no guarantee the Senate will accept Pelosi's legislation. When the Senate voted last year 52-49 in favor of returning to the old 2015 net neutrality rules, it was as a result of three Republicans crossing the aisle. While those three are still in the Senate, recent elections saw more Republicans take seats and so even if they voted again in favor, it would still tie at 50-50.
Back when the Senate passed its measure, the House was controlled by Republicans and speaker Paul Ryan simply refused to allow the measure go to a vote: something Democrats decried loudly. Well, now, using the exact same majority control, the Democratic House will jam through its net neutrality bill, ignoring efforts by the other side to arrive at what they promised would be a bipartisan effort to address the issue.
Even if by some fluke, the Democrats – while castigating their opponents as corporate cronies – persuaded one more Republican in the Senate to vote for the bill, it will still require President Trump to sign it. And there is very little chance he will do that given all his prior statements on the issue. The Democrats don't have the numbers to override that presidential veto.
And so we ended up in the exact same place all over again, except with another few months of hurled insults, more confusion and hardened positions.
In a further sign that the argument over net neutrality really isn't about telecoms policy but an opportunity to score political points, for some bizarre reason the head of the FCC, Ajit Pai, also felt the need to weigh in.
His spokeswoman put out a statement on the new bill, accusing it of being "heavy-handed regulation from the 1930s" and then made a series of evidence-free claims about how Pai, by scrapping the previous rules, "has preserved the free and open Internet."
There were the same claims about how the previous rules had limited investment in broadband and how rescinding them had sparked new investment. Scrapping the rules had "unleashed private investment, resulting in more fiber being deployed in 2018 than any year before and download speeds increasing by an astounding 36 per cent," claimed the FCC.
Of course, there are also facts that show that the net neutrality rules and their removal has had no impact at all on rollout: companies are making their decisions based on larger factors.
Forced to eat humble Pai?
Plus Pai's deployment argument – which he had made repeatedly this month – is very likely wrong as it based on faulty stats that ISPs supply to the FCC. The "Form 477" stats have, for years, been identified as wildly inaccurate given cable companies' careful manipulation of the way they are measured.
But even by the flawed standards of Form 477, the fact that an ISP called Barrier Communications Corporation claims to have gone from zero customers to serving 20 per cent of the American population (62 million people) in just six months is quite something. The company has "grossly misreported its deployment", net neutrality advocacy group Free Press pointed out in a letter [PDF] to Pai this week.
Not wishing to be outdone, the two Democrats on the FCC also weighed in on the proposed legislation rather than, you know, not bother because there is literally no point.
"The FCC was on the wrong side of the law, the wrong side of history, and the wrong side of the American public when it rolled back net neutrality," said Jessica Rosenworcel. "I'll keep raising a ruckus to support net neutrality and I’m glad…"
Even new-boy Sparks signed up for the shout-fest. "The American people have demanded a free and open internet and I am pleased that Congress has responded with today’s legislation… I am hopeful that the bill introduced today will energize folks across the country…"
End of the world as we know it
It doesn't help that the Democrats are grossly overplaying their position by arguing that they need to "save the internet" by returning to the old rules. The truth is that ISPs do have far greater leeway to charge higher prices without the rules and they will start taking advantage of that once they feel the issue has settled down: which may not be years given the legal fights against and the 2020 election which could could flip everything all over again.
But at no point will the lack of net neutrality rules result in the end of the internet; it just means a more controlled, expensive internet. All that is happening is that cable companies are trying to impose their existing cable business model onto the internet, particularly since companies like Google and Facebook are using the network to become as rich and powerful as they are.
The more cable companies are forced to simply supply data at fast speeds, rather than apply control over that data, the more they become utility providers. The internet can enable content providers to go direct to the consumer - get an HBO app rather than a subscription through your cable provider.
It's a fundamental shift in power and money but it's not the end of the internet – and pretending otherwise only makes things worse, in the same way that gun control is painted as an effort to take away people's fundamental rights, and abortion is painted as the murder of babies.
In just one of many occasions today in which the entire issue of internet provision went from dry telecoms policy to wild nonsense, the head of the federal regulator slammed "the many hysterical predictions of doom from 2017" in an equally hysterical response to proposed legislation, which itself was present hysterically, accusing everyone that didn't agree with it of being stupid or corrupt. ®
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