It’s hard to imagine a less likely viral video sensation than Republican congressman Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin. But there he was last week, all 73 years of him, wagging his finger at a constituent concerned about online privacy and telling her, “Nobody’s got to use the internet.”
Sensenbrenner’s lecture was a clarifying moment in the debate over the future of online privacy and digital democracy. After eight years of the Obama administration, whose telecommunications policies were more often than not in the public interest, President Trump and his Republican allies are rushing headlong into a future that is of, by and for the telecom companies. It’s a debate that hasn’t gotten nearly as much attention as it should — and that could set the tone for how we communicate with one another for at least a generation.
Let’s take privacy first. According to The Washington Post, Sensenbrenner was asked why Congress voted to repeal an Obama policy that prohibited telecom companies such as Comcast and Verizon from selling to marketers data such as their customers’ browsing histories. The questioner noted that internet giants such as Facebook and Google are under no such restrictions — but that though she could choose to live without Facebook, making do without any internet access at all was another matter.
Not according to Sensenbrenner, who responded with his by-now-infamous “nobody’s got to use the internet” remark. He went on to tell the questioner that the telecoms should be free to do what they want. “I don’t think it’s my job to tell you that you cannot get advertising for your information being sold,” he said. And so we all took another step down the road to a day when all of our online activities will be surveilled to sell us stuff and, inevitably, to keep tabs on what we’re viewing.
In addition to the assault on privacy, the Federal Communications Commission seems likely to reverse an Obama-era ruling that broadband companies should be regulated as common carriers, thus undermining net neutrality — a crucial if hard-to-define idea that internet service providers should treat all digital traffic equally.
Let me offer an analogy. In the late 19th century, the railroad companies were free to charge whatever they liked to whomever they liked. They abused this power by, among other things, charging lower rates to customers who wanted to ship goods long distances compared to those who only needed short hauls — thus putting small farmers and ranchers at a competitive disadvantage. Congress approved an early form of net neutrality by passing the Interstate Commerce Act of 1887. It wasn’t perfect, but it helped level the playing field.
Today, the telecoms would like to be able to set up a “fast lane” on the internet and charge more to those willing and able to pay. In some respects this might sound sensible. Why shouldn’t Netflix, which accounts for more than 30 percent of all internet traffic, pay a higher rate? (Netflix already has a deal for faster access with Comcast that, for reasons that are too technically complicated to get into, does not violate the principle of net neutrality.)
In fact, the early internet visionaries saw their creation as a democratic space where anyone could be heard. A start-up news organization faces enough obstacles without being put in the position of having to pay money it doesn’t have in order for its content to pop up just as quickly as its competitors’. The reason that Facebook, Google and Amazon (three companies that support net neutrality, by the way) were able to become the giants that they are today is that they all enjoyed access to the same internet service as everyone else.
Unfortunately the new Republican chairman of the FCC, Ajit Pai, has called net neutrality “a solution in search of a problem.” With the FCC now controlled by a majority of Republicans, the agency seems likely to rescind net neutrality sometime in the near future. Reuters reports that Pai could make his move as early as this month.
Among the many problems with the assault on privacy and net neutrality is this: Once they are lost, it will be extraordinarily difficult to get them back. That’s why media advocacy organizations such as Free Press are asking members of the public to take action.
Whether such action will make a difference remains to be seen. One thing is for sure, though. The road to a less free internet won’t hurt a bit, as it will be paved with consumer-friendly goodies such as more-relevant ads and faster download speeds. What we’ve lost will only become clear in the long run.