Next week, five members of a regulatory committee will make a decision about one of the biggest threats to democratic discourse Americans have faced in our lifetimes — and it isn’t looking good. On Dec. 14, the Federal Communications Commission will vote on a proposal to end net neutrality. This means that internet service providers would be able to block, slow down or charge customers extra to access certain websites. The three Republicans on the committee, who typically vote as a bloc, are widely expected to enact the plan. But it isn’t too late for corporations to protect us.
The possible implications of the end of net neutrality are harrowing. Imagine, for example, an internet service provider charging extra for access to mainstream news sites. That could leave Americans who can’t afford premium service to get their information from purveyors of fake news. Or, picture an internet service provider that supports a particular agenda — AT&T, Comcast and Verizon have aggressively lobbied the Trump administration to end net neutrality, for example — slowing down access to websites of political candidates who don’t support their positions.
The lack of competition among internet service providers means many Americans would have no choice but to use such services. According to an FCC report released in April, 87 percent of American census blocks have two or fewer service providers offering broadband services of at least 25 Mbps downstream and 3 Mbps upstream. In part, this is because it’s so costly and complicated to start an internet service provider; startups in particular face the threat of lawsuits from established companies. The challenge has even stymied Google’s parent company, Alphabet, which announced in October 2016 that it was scaling back plans to bring its Google Fiber service to more American cities.
Luckily for Americans, however, the plan to end net neutrality is also a major threat to companies that do business on the internet. This is because internet service providers could block or limit access to certain sites altogether. For example, they could cut off access to Netflix and instead sell entertainment streaming services of their own. (Sound crazy? In 2014, Netflix paid Comcast to stop a slowdown of its site.) That’s why members of the Internet Association — companies such as Google, Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, Uber, Netflix, Airbnb and eBay — support net neutrality.
It looks like it’s too late for politicians to protect net neutrality. The FCC is almost certainly going to repeal it, and the Republican-controlled Congress is unlikely to pass a bill mandating that all web traffic be treated equally. But corporations can still save Americans from this threat.
Members of the Internet Association could band together to fund an internet service provider that would guarantee neutrality and offer service to every American at affordable rates. Google Fiber could build out its existing services nationwide with funding from these other companies who have a huge interest in protecting open access to the net. Even if the effort is costly, it would be less expensive than the potential alternative of customers being unable to access their sites.
Jim Baller, president of the law firm Baller Stokes & Lide PC and an expert in telecommunications, likes the idea. He notes that members of the Association “have extensive experience with disrupting traditional industries,” along with “substantial resources, knowledge of the communications industry and buying power. That’s a potent and promising formula for them to find a feasible solution to the elimination of network neutrality.”
In the past, media scholars warned that big corporations were one of the biggest dangers to American democracy. University of Illinois professor Robert McChesney famously wrote that a “rich media” spelled “poor democracy.” Today, internet service providers lobbying against net neutrality are the epitome of this threat. But social media platforms and other companies may also be our last hope of protection.
– Alaimo is an assistant professor of public relations at Hofstra University and author of “Pitch, Tweet, or Engage on the Street: How to Practice Global Public Relations and Strategic Communication.” She previously served in the Obama administration.