Last week, in a highly anticipated decision in the Mozilla v. FCC case, the DC Circuit largely upheld the Federal Communication Commission’s repeal of the Obama-era “net neutrality” rules, which imposed a variety of regulations on Internet Service Providers (ISPs). While not a complete victory for the Trump administration (among other things, it opened the door to possible state actions) it was still a significant win for the White House.
Predictably, Trump took to Twitter to celebrate it: “We just won a big court case on Net Neutrality rules! A great win for the future and speed of the Internet! Will lead to many big things including 5G.”
Democrats predictably responded negatively, claiming the ruling enables big corporations to suppress speech and competition online, a barely digestible irony given the left’s ruthless suppression of the free speech of their political opponents through services such as Twitter, Google, and Facebook. These entities functionally serve as proxy arms for the Democratic Party online, as more than 90 percent of employees’ donations go to Democrats and numerous senior employees of these companies have assisted with Democratic electoral efforts.
Democrats such Frank Pallone, D-Penn., chair of the House Commerce Energy and Commerce Committee, predictably stated, “This decision reiterates that the Senate needs to act quickly to pass [the so-called ‘Save the Internet’ Act, which would restore the old rules] to put Americans, not corporations, first,” because the “decision to abandon net neutrality continues to harm consumers and small businesses, leaving a few large corporations in control of an essential component of modern life.”
Similarly, Sen. Bernie Sanders tweeted, “this ruling threatens to give more power to unaccountable companies like AT&T, Comcast and Verizon over what we see and do on the Internet. . .This struggle is essential to free speech and democracy.”
Whatever one thinks about the court’s decision, the “unaccountable companies” with unchecked power “over what we see and do on the internet” that threaten free speech, innovation, and competition are Silicon Valley monopolies like Google, Amazon, and Facebook, who frequently use their monopoly power to prioritize their own content and censor opponents. Democrats’ myopia on this doubtless reflects the fact that unlike those companies, telcos are not universally Democrat donors.
Big Internet Wants Government Regulation
While Mozilla was the named plaintiff in the lawsuit—likely because it does not have the same political reputation of Big Tech giants—Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Amazon, Twitter, and Apple have spent millions of dollars fighting for these regulations. The Internet Association, which represents these companies (except Apple) intervened in the case to promote the strong regulations, and they have collectively spent tens of millions of dollars lobbying.
Net neutrality was designed to prevent ISPs from “throttling” or “paid prioritization” against their competitors. Net neutrality proponents say that, for example, AT&T could give HBONow (which it owns) access to faster Internet than competitors like Netflix, or that Verizon could charge YouTube to use its “fast lanes” where the videos would load more quickly. While these are legitimate, if perhaps overinflated, concerns, they pale in comparison to the type of discriminatory and self-interested practices big tech already engages in.
Mozilla’s relationship to Google demonstrates both problems. Google-owned YouTube runs five times faster on Chrome than on Mozilla’s Firefox. Google is estimated to pay Apple $12 billion in 2019 to make Google the default search engine on Safari and Siri. Mozilla, which was ironically founded as an independent browser project by Brendan Eich (who later was forced to step down after his donation to a campaign to allow voters to weigh in on gay marriage), receives approximately 90 percent of its revenue from Google to make it the default search engine.
How About Throttling Political Content?
This is to say nothing about Silicon Valley’s threat to free speech. The Free Press, the non-profit whose research provided the basis of much of Mozilla’s case, tied the ruling to every fashionable left-wing cause: “Open and clear communications networks are crucial in the fight for racial justice, immigrant rights, reproductive freedom and a host of other issues. People simply can’t afford to see their speech cut off by the companies that own the wires and channels connecting us all.”
In this imaginary world, without strict regulations, right-wing ISPs would censor pro-choice and pro-immigration content. In reality, Google, Facebook, and Twitter have repeatedly censored pro-life and pro-immigration enforcement content. A few examples just on these issues:
- Twitter required the pro-life group Live Action to delete images of ultrasounds from ads.
- Mark Zuckerberg admitted there “clearly was bias” in Facebook’s censorship of pro-life ads from Live Action. Facebook had previously banned a pro-life video supporting Marsha Blackburn’s candidacy for Senate.
- YouTube maintains a “blacklist” (its own term) to prevent pro-life videos from showing atop searches for abortion. YouTube also restricted Dennis Prager’s pro-life videos.
- Twitter banned the Center for Immigration Studies for running ads that used the word “illegal alien” or “criminal alien” (which is the proper legal term used by courts and the U.S. code) as “hateful content.”
- Facebook banned an ad from Donald Trump presidential campaign that highlighted crimes by illegal aliens.
So rather than address actual censorship of patriotic immigration reform and pro-life content by Silicon Valley, The Free Press claims the crisis is one of non-existent censorship of pro-choice and pro-immigration content, a shameless case of public policy gaslighting.
That is not to say big tech censorship is strictly partisan. Facebook blocked Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s campaign ads calling for the breakup of Big Tech. While they claimed it was a mistake, given the recent suggestions that Zuckerberg is terrified of a Warren presidency (big tech needs its corporatist Democratic allies, having already alienated grassroots Republicans), there’s a reason to be concerned.
Big Blockers Pretend to Be Scared of Blocking
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai noted this hypocrisy in a 2017 speech: “despite all the talk about the fear that broadband providers could decide what Internet content consumers can see, recent experience shows that so-called edge providers [such as Google and Facebook] are in fact deciding what content they see. These providers routinely block or discriminate against content they don’t like.”
The Free Press says Pai is making an apples to oranges comparison: “Trump FCC’s decision conflated broadband networks with the information those networks carry.” It argues ISPs are gatekeepers of content, while Google and Facebook are like newspapers. While the industries are not identical, tech platforms have legal protections to ensure they are not treated like publishers, and have far larger market power. Facebook and Google can and have harmed competitors and political dissidents far more than any ISP.
This does not mean the telecom industry should receive laissez faire treatment. It wields substantial power over the distribution of information and ideas, and if telecom companies abuse their powers in the same way that Google and Facebook do, they will deserve similar scrutiny. Yet because Big Tech has already abused their greater power, any discussion of net neutrality and an open internet must begin with sensible rules to curb the power of tech monopolies.
President Trump was right to celebrate what was at least a partial victory in the net neutrality wars. But the president needs to do more than just take a victory lap on Twitter.
The administration needs to take concrete action against big tech monopolies, such as putting strong White House backing behind Sen. Josh Hawley’s (R-Mo.) Ending Support for Internet Censorship Act, which the president has already praised, beefing up the administration’s anti-Trust probe of Big Tech, and working with Congress to take legislative steps to ensure Americans own and control their private data. It’s time for Trump to use political, not just rhetorical muscle against big tech and its relentless campaign against consumer privacy, conservatives, and the first Amendment.