Internet content is neither “open” nor “equal” when Facebook, Twitter, and Google themselves are guilty of censoring or throttling information and material on their platforms, at will and with zero accountability to users.
SCHOHARIE COUNTY, NEW YORK (Analysis) – In a conversation I overheard recently, one of many such discussions that are being waged nowadays, the topic was professional basketball player Enes Kanter, a member of the NBA’s New York Knicks and a native of Turkey. Kanter, an outspoken critic of the increasingly autocratic Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan through such mediums as Twitter, is facing a four-year prison sentence in absentia in Turkey, a sentence sought after by prosecutors for “insulting the president.”
In the discussion I was party to, a group of liberal New Yorkers blamed Kanter’s predicament on none other than… Donald Trump. We were told Trump is a “good friend” of the “Turkish dictator” and “envious of his dictatorial ways,” which he “wants to bring to America.” Turkey’s worsening relationship with the United States was ignored, as well as the friendship between Erdoğan and former president Barack Obama, which has been confirmed by Obama himself.
What does this have to do with net neutrality? Nothing and everything. This mentality is increasingly prevalent in public discourse today, where Trump is often cited as the sole and only source of anything that is rotten in our society, while the actions of his predecessors are conveniently ignored or overlooked. This is not a defense or an attack of Trump, simply an observation regarding the level of present-day political discourse.
It also brings us to the issue of net neutrality.
Earlier this month, the Federal Communication Commission’s (FCC) five commissioners, in a 3-2 vote along partisan lines, voted to repeal Title II net neutrality regulations that classified broadband service as a public utility, just like traditional copper-wire landline telephone service. Title II rules provided the FCC with broad regulatory authority, which Republicans, including FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, cited as the main reason for their opposition, regardless of what their true motivations may have been.
Of course, blame towards Pai quickly turned into blame against Trump and his administration, as Trump designated Pai as FCC chairman earlier this year. But it bears pointing out that Pai was originally appointed to the commission by Obama, an appointment that was unanimously approved by the Senate in May 2012. Pai won a second five-year term, retroactive to July 1, 2016, in a Senate vote in October that included “yea” votes from four Democrats, who cited Pai’s efforts to boost rural broadband availability. In other words, both major parties had a hand in the chain of events that led to the repeal.
It is frequently said that we now live in a “post-truth” world. But often it is those tending to favor this term who themselves are guilty of “post-truth,” ascribing blame to one party when there’s plenty of responsibility to be shared across the political spectrum. It would seem that the favored usage of this term, at least from academics and media pundits, masks an underlying defense of neoliberal values and attacks on anyone perceived as threatening them. This leads to political attacks that obscure the big picture on a number of important issues, with net neutrality being no exception.
What the current debate and controversy over the repeal of Title II net neutrality rules ignores is the inconvenient truth that, in reality, net neutrality never existed. Truly equal access to information and resources did not exist, even under the net neutrality regime. Indeed, the digital divide — also known as “digital inequality” — is just as real today as it was before the net neutrality regulations went into effect. Above all, the hypocrisy of the supposed leading champions of an “open internet” — companies such as Google, Facebook, Twitter, and Microsoft — is strikingly evident.
Life in the slow lane
When I am in the United States, I reside in a rural community in upstate New York, not far from the state capital. And it is here in this region, populated largely by farmers, that the only “broadband” access available is via the “4G” mobile networks of two providers. The quotation marks are necessary because such “4G” access is not unlimited. Instead, it is data-capped. Once the monthly “high-speed” quota is surpassed, access is dropped to 2G speeds — at best. Download speeds on one such throttled connection were recently measured at 0.25 Mbps, only about four times faster than an old-style dial-up connection and well short of the minimum level to be considered “broadband” (as of 2015, the FCC set 25 Mbps as the minimum download speed for a connection to be considered “broadband,” up from 4 Mbps previously). There is no cable or fiber optic infrastructure in the immediate area.
An even more significant point is that mobile broadband was never truly covered under net neutrality — up until 2010 in a regulatory sense, and since then through the exploitation of a loophole in the regulations that did not explicitly prohibit a practice known as “zero rating,” in which mobile providers could exclude certain traffic and data from customers’ data caps, thereby affording preferential treatment to content of the provider’s choosing.
In other words, “net neutrality” in its true sense did not apply to mobile broadband usage anywhere in the country — not in urban areas and not in rural communities such as my own, where it is essentially the only locally-available broadband option. Yes, satellite internet is available, but it too is data-capped and prone to slow upload speeds.
The cost of this mobile broadband option is also extravagant, much higher than the cost of wired broadband access in areas where it is available. And, based on my own personal usage experience, it is very likely that mobile providers were also surreptitiously throttling specific websites even further once the 4G data cap was exceeded. While certain websites, even relatively graphics-intensive ones, might still load reasonably quickly, other websites, such as the browser version of the file-sharing app Dropbox, are essentially impossible to use.
Never was a “neutral” or “equal” internet
Millions of Americans have been experiencing online life in the slow lane even during the years that “net neutrality” regulation was in effect. The digital divide, or “digital inequality,” manifests itself in a number of different ways. According to data from the United States Census Bureau, a wide swath of states in the central and southern U.S. have broadband penetration rates of between 61 and 71 percent of the population, while it is predominantly the states of the northeast and the west coast that boast penetration rates exceeding 80 percent.
Furthermore, according to a 2016 FCC report, when net neutrality was still very much in effect, 10 percent of all Americans lack access to broadband service, including 39 percent of rural Americans and 41 percent of Americans living on Tribal lands. And 2015 data from Pew Research demonstrates clear digital inequalities across income, educational, racial, and generational lines, not to mention a clear divide between urban and suburban areas as compared to rural areas.
What this all boils down to is the reality that internet access is not distributed equally, and this also includes internet infrastructure and broadband speeds. Large swaths of the United States, and tens of millions of Americans, remain without access to broadband internet access, or have very limited options — and those on paper only, as is the case in my own community.
Even for households with access to wired broadband services, the “net neutrality” era did not, in reality, result in a free and open internet. Major internet service providers such as Comcast, owners of NBC, began imposing data caps on home subscribers, offering “unlimited” access at a hefty additional cost. “Net neutrality” regulations did nothing to stymie this practice, which can be said to violate one of the core principles of net neutrality, that being the equal treatment of all traffic. When throttling takes place, via either a wired or a mobile connection, by definition it means that certain traffic is being prioritized over other traffic. For instance, if you are a content creator and are facing data capping and throttling, your content is at a disadvantage compared to someone whose connection is not capped or throttled.
Similarly, when internet access is made available in tiers, whether those tiers have to do with the amount of data transferred and consumed per month or the speed of the broadband connection itself, by definition, traffic (and users) are not operating on an equal playing field. Those who are able and willing to pay more will get more. This may not be a concept new to telecommunications — think back to the days of expensive long-distance phone calls, or even to cable or mobile bundles today — but it is a practice that perpetuates “digital inequality” and goes against the spirit of net neutrality.
Using a “smart TV” or a Roku or Amazon Fire stick? Access to content is controlled! And while “smart TV” platforms often do have a built-in browser allowing users to access content other than what’s pre-installed or available via an “app store,” Roku or Amazon Fire sticks and other such technologies are pretty much closed systems, providing users with content that is either pre-installed or installable via a catalog of available applications. This is not an “open” usage of the World Wide Web.
And even during the “utopian” years of net neutrality, companies with deep enough pockets were able to purchase faster lanes for themselves. Netflix as well as Google, for instance, set up agreements known as “peering arrangements” with ISPs, allowing their data direct access to the backbones of these ISPs — and quicker access to consumers.
There was a time when snapping up a monopolistic position in the marketplace and ensuring that your product enjoyed favorable placement — as was the case in the late 1990s with Microsoft’s Internet Explorer browser — resulted in antitrust litigation. Nowadays, such practices are par for the course.
Champions of the “open internet”: Do as we say, not as we do
As the threat to Title II net neutrality regulation became greater, and especially after its repeal, certain major technological forces came out and stated their support for an “open internet.” These companies include Google, Facebook, Twitter, and Microsoft, all of which have publicly championed net neutrality and the need for the web to remain “open.
These public proclamations may make for great PR — but they also expose the stunning hypocrisy of these companies, who say one thing but practice another on their own platforms. Internet content is neither “open” nor “equal” when Facebook, Twitter, and Google themselves are guilty of censoring or throttling information and material on their platforms, at will and with zero accountability to users
The examples are many. For instance, there’s Facebook’s ongoing war against so-called “fake news,” with Facebook and its own hand-picked “experts” as sole arbiters of what constitutes “fake” and what does not. Google, in turn, recently altered its search and news-gathering algorithms, and “de-ranked” the Russian news services RT and Sputnik, in its own crusade against “fake news.”
Taking things one step further, YouTube is busy assembling its very own 1984-style Thought Police, via the hiring of 10,000 new staffers who will be tasked with weeding out content deemed to be “extremist” — even though YouTube ultimately plans to turn this important internet-saving task over to automated algorithms in the future. How the determination will be made as to what constitutes “extremist” content, either by human censors or by algorithms, remains unclear.
Not to be outdone in this Orwellian race to the bottom, Twitter has recently announced that it will judge verified users’ off-site behavior in its determination as to whether or not to strip users of their verification badges. In other words, Twitter has taken on the role of judge, jury, and moral arbiter of users’ actions even beyond its own corner of the supposedly “open” internet. (Notably, I have attempted to obtain verification on both Facebook and Twitter for my journalistic endeavors and was declined without explanation.)
Going even further still, Twitter in recent days has forged ahead with a purge of numerous Twitter accounts, purportedly stemming mostly from far-right or neo-Nazi groups — an effort that even Rolling Stone called out for being inconsistent and with no discernible logic. This encompassed the removal of accounts that may be politically reprehensible to many but that, in the words of one such user who was targeted, never engaged in “trolling or suggesting violence.”
Nor are trolling and threats of violence the exclusive domain of the far-right or “alt-right,” seemingly the target of this latest purge. What’s more dangerous though is that the “extremist” label could be used to justify the stymieing of any politically inconvenient voice, regardless of ideology.
If this seems far-fetched, consider what the very first line of the Wikipedia entry titled “Censorship of Twitter” states: “Censorship of Twitter occurs in many countries and is approved of and supported by Twitter.” Then consider why a Wikipedia article titled “Censorship of Twitter” even exists in the first place.
Further illustrating the point, journalists and bloggers who have espoused politically sensitive positions — far removed from the globalist, neoliberal orthodoxy but also far removed from any semblance of an association with far-right groups or advocates of violence and other illegal activities — have increasingly become the target of such crackdowns by social media outlets or, at the very least, abuses of systems in place to flag and report postings.
Andrew Korybko — a geopolitical analyst with Sputnik News, Oriental Review, and other outlets — is one such example. A prolific writer on topics ranging from Russia’s strategic maneuverings in the Middle East and Eurasia, to China’s “One Belt, One Road” Initiative, to the Trump administration’s foreign policy, Korybko has been repeatedly barred from posting on Facebook, or posting to Facebook groups, in recent months. His most recent ban came after he posted a recent article of his, published by Oriental Review, challenging the mainstream and politically-correct narrative regarding the arrest of Palestinian activist Ahed Tamimi.
Ironically, Tamimi’s own Twitter account has vanished and is rumored to have been removed by Twitter itself. Similarly, Facebook, citing “hate speech,” recently removed a page titled “Crimes of Britain,” which provided details of crimes perpetrated by Great Britain during its colonial, imperialist past.
Meanwhile, obviously fake accounts on networks such as Facebook and Twitter that are used for trolling go unpunished and operate with impunity, even when reported by multiple users for what, in fact, are flagrant violations of each site’s terms of service. And even when espousing violent, hateful, or racist speech. Behind a purge of far-right accounts though, it does seem that speech that is frequently targeted for censorship more often than not coincidentally seems to align itself with voices of many different political stripes that have in common that they are opposed to globalism, neoliberalism, and imperialism.
Such arbitrary actions on the part of social networks such as Facebook and Twitter have two consequences: they deprive those who are being banned or otherwise suppressed from freely engaging in speech and expressing their opinions and viewpoints; and they deprive the rest of that social network’s community of members from having access to such speech. Instead, the universe of Facebook users and the Twittersphere is expected to take comfort in the fact that it can freely access speech and opinions already deemed by those respective networks to be politically acceptable for the public.
Social networks such as Facebook also suppress speech through more innocuous-seeming methods. For instance, postings of Facebook pages — long a means for individuals and groups and organizations without deep pockets to freely deliver their message to a wide audience — have for a while now been significantly throttled by Facebook. The social network’s algorithms ensure that any posting made by a page appears on the news feed of only a small percentage of the page’s followers — individuals who have actively chosen to like that page, presumably for its content! How can a page administrator increase the audience for its postings? By paying Facebook to “boost” each individual posting.
In other words, page administrators have to pay for preferential treatment of their material. Exactly what we are told will be a consequence of the abolition of net neutrality. And while Facebook and Twitter and Google engage in such practices, each in its own way, they publicly cheerlead for an “open internet.” In turn, the crème de la crème of the neoliberal media world, outlets such as the Amazon-owned Washington Post, have absolutely no qualms about denouncing alternative websites (including MintPress News) as being purveyors of “fake news” while, in the same breath, proclaiming their unwavering support for an “open internet.” The hypocrisy is astounding!
But net neutrality has champions in Congress, elected representatives that stick up for the little guy, correct? The lip service in favor of an “open internet” may be there, but not the action. Case in point: Bernie Sanders, who is calling upon the public to petition the FCC to “protect the open internet.” Not included in the fine print, however, is that Sanders was the number two recipient of donations from Comcast — yes, the very same ISP that places data caps on household internet usage — amongst elected officials and candidates for public office in 2016. Hillary Clinton was far and away the top recipient of donations from Comcast, while Trump did not crack the top 35 (not entirely free of such dependencies, he was 36th) — which consists of a bipartisan Who’s Who, including Jeb Bush, Paul Ryan, Patrick Leahy, Kamala Harris, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Debbie Wasserman Schultz.
It can be argued that it is the right of private companies, such as Google or Facebook or Twitter, to determine what speech is or is not allowed on their platform or to lobby for or against regulatory regimes such as net neutrality. Fair enough. However, if they choose to make that argument, then they cannot with a straight face argue in favor of an “open internet” as well. It’s either one or the other. Either they will tolerate free speech and the open exchange of ideas and only intervene for the most severe, egregious violations (such as truly credible threats of violence) without any political bias; or they will operate as they do now, and openly contradict the principles of the open internet that they claim to support.
Furthermore, if such companies truly believe in an open internet, then they should believe in the open internet’s ability to self-police and self-filter. A global community of internet users, weeding out what is truly fake from what is real. But is that not precisely what they are afraid of?
Is bridging the divide enough?
Proponents of net neutrality have recently pointed to the United Kingdom, where it was announced that by 2020 the ability to access high-speed internet will be a legal right for all households and businesses. This is indeed an excellent policy objective for any government. But, what internet will households and businesses have the ability to connect to? Only a few months ago, the very same government, led by Prime Minister Theresa May, stated its intention to openly censor content on the internet — including what can be posted, published, and shared — purportedly in the name of combating terror.
In other words, universal access for all who want it — but access to a network where speech and content is tightly regulated and controlled by the government and subject to its whims.
What this all illustrates is that there are two issues at play that are of equal significance. The first is the right of individuals, households, and businesses to enjoy equal footing on the internet (commonly thought of as “net neutrality” — even if, in a regulatory sense, “net neutrality” as it has been implemented in the United States has primarily referred to the net’s classification as a utility). The second is the right of individuals, households, and businesses to have equal access to the network infrastructure itself. In other words, it is both a matter of free speech and a matter of technology. Both are equally needed for a truly open internet to exist. “Net neutrality,” at best, only provided one of the two — and that not fully or consistently across all providers and platforms.
The question that ultimately must be asked is this: What’s in it for Facebook, Twitter, Google, Microsoft, Amazon and other major players who are so openly championing net neutrality and the “open” internet in words, even if not in deeds? Despite Google’s famous “don’t be evil” slogan, my best guess is that their lip service in favor of an “open” internet has nothing to do with altruism, and everything to do with the bottom line. The likes of Amazon, Google, and Facebook are responsible for large swaths of internet traffic. The elimination of Title II rules may be placing these companies at risk of having to pony up significant monetary sums to ISPs. This argument is most often heard in connection with Netflix, but it is entirely plausible that it is at the root of the support for an “open” internet by these other major players as well.
The future of the current brand of net neutrality may well be at risk, at least in the United States. Or it may very well be that consumers and end users do not notice any significant changes and ISPs instead decide to go after the major originators of most of the traffic on their networks, rather than (further) alienating consumers. It may also be the case that the FCC’s repeal of Title II net neutrality, said to be based on shaky legal footing, could be delayed or struck down in court. Time will tell, and the public has a responsibility to do its part. In order to claim, though, that we are losing an open and equal internet, we would have had to have one in the first place.