The Overturning of Net Neutrality and the Specter of Internet Censorship

December 18, 2017 | Revolution Newspaper |


Up until last week, the big corporations that control access to the Internet were officially supposed to treat all traffic on the net equally, no matter the source, as long as the content was not illegal—whether that content was from multi-billion entertainment companies or musicians getting their work out to fans or a revolutionary website like or anyone else. This is known as “net neutrality.” Now, in the society we live in, marked by sharp class divisions and inequality, there has never been equal access to the Internet, for example, for kids in run-down inner city schools as compared to those in well-funded suburban schools. And the workings of capitalism have led to a situation where a few mega-corporations backed by big capital basically control much of the traffic on the web. But net neutrality has been the guiding principle on the Internet since it started.

On December 15, the Federal Communications Commissions (FCC), headed by a Trump/Pence appointee, overturned regulations protecting net neutrality. The move will have far-reaching effects on what people can access on the Internet and how—including content that those in positions of power see fit to censor.

In a November 24 interview on The Michael Slate Show on KPFK Radio, Corynne McSherry, legal director for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said that net neutrality was “really about protecting freedom of expression online.” McSherry went on to explain:

“Basically net neutrality is a set of rules that makes sure that internet service providers (ISPs) that we rely on for internet access—people like Comcast, Verizon, AT&T—basically play fair and don’t get to sort of pick winners and losers online because they’re in a position where they’re our conduit to the Internet. That’s how you get to the Internet, that’s how you access Netflix but it’s also how you access government websites, libraries, school, education, right? We all rely on the Internet for all kinds of basic services and also to organize politically, connect to communities, and that’s fantastic. The Internet can be a wonderful place for that, but to get to it, we have to rely on these internet service providers, which usually, in most markets, are monopolies. You don’t have a choice.

“So up until two days ago we had a set of rules in place that were enforced by the FCC that prohibited those ISPs from, for example, favoring one web site over another, making it so that if you are a user trying to access a web site, one of them goes really nice and fast and the other one is kind of slow and clunky. The ISPs can do that—they can prioritize certain services and we had rules in place to say no, you can’t do that, that’s unfair. You would be abusing your monopoly power if you did that. What the FCC is proposing to do is to scrap all of those rules; just get rid of them. These rules have been in place since the birth of the Internet, basically. It’s been an understanding that this is what you had to do. The FCC says no, we don’t think you need to comply with any of these rules and obligations and just go ahead, do what you want.”

The only requirement that Trump’s FCC put on the ISPs is that they be “transparent” when they are privileging one source or kind of internet traffic over another—in other words, robbery in the form of demanding people fork up more to get good internet access (and punishing those who don’t “pay up”) is OK as long as the perpetrators are open about it. There are predictions that the abolishing of net neutrality rules will enable the already highly profitable corporations like Comcast and AT&T to gouge even more from people who are putting content on the Internet and those who want to get information out online. They will be able to impose a “tiered payment structure” regulating internet access to various sites and content providers. Those who are able to “pay” will have faster access while those who can’t will be relegated to frustratingly or impossibly slow speeds. This will further exacerbate the divides between those who are backed by big capital and others, further silencing the voices of those who are already marginalized now under this system. And given that more than 46 million households in the US have only one ISP to turn to, they will be held hostage to whatever those monopoly ISPs do.

The move against net neutrality will reinforce and further heighten the concentration of control over the Internet by big capital. And the wiping out of net neutrality regulations is in line with the Trump/Pence regime’s approach of gutting one government regulation after another—on environment, workplace safety, consumer protection, and more—in order to give freer rein to capitalists’ pursuit of profit.

Beyond this, the banishing of net neutrality opens the door wider for political censorship on the Internet. Before getting into the issue of censorship per se, it should be noted that while the Internet has been a valuable tool for people engaged in radical resistance and thinking, it has also played a major role in the promotion of the false, unscientific notion that truth of an idea is determined by how many people are behind it—what’s known as populist epistemology. Given this—along with the major hand of big capital—the Internet was never the medium of “unfettered democracy,” as proclaimed by many, or the source of unvarnished truth. However, the further top-down control over the Internet that the end of net neutrality will allow is not a good thing for the people.

Corynne McSherry of the EFF pointed out, “[Censorship] is absolutely a possibility. The reason I know that is because they’ve already done it. And they’ve been caught many times... and they’ve been held accountable because we have rules in place. We don’t have those rules anymore. If this order goes through we don’t have those rules. We’ve seen a Canadian ISP block access to a site that provided information about abortion. That was absolutely a political choice. When it was caught, there was a big uproar around it and that’s great but they won’t always get caught, right? And they’ll do it or they’ll throttle it, they’ll slow it down so suddenly you say, ‘Oh I’m not even going to bother to go to that web site because it’s so slow. I’m going to go to this other one over here.’ This is absolutely a real, real not just a possibility it’s a probability.”

The American Civil Liberties Union pointed to several other previous examples of censorship, including:

*In 2007, AT&T, which was streaming a concert by Pearl Jam in Chicago, cut off the sound as Eddie Vedder sang, “George Bush, leave this world alone” and “George Bush, find yourself another home.”

*In 2005, the Canadian telecom Telus blocked its internet subscribers from accessing the website of the union that was on strike against the company.

*In 2007, Verizon cut off access to a text-messaging program used by NARAL (National Abortion Rights Action League) to reach its supporters, saying that it would not service any programs for groups “that seeks to promote an agenda or distribute content that, in its discretion, may be seen as controversial or unsavory to any of our users.”

To be clear, political censorship and repression on the Internet—on a huge scale—has been carried out by not just the telecoms but the U.S. government and its spy agencies. Witness the exposures over the last few years by Edward Snowden and others of the massive surveillance by the National Security Administration (NSA) on the Internet and phone communications of literally billions of people worldwide. For all their talk about “democracy” and rights,” for the capitalist-imperialist rulers, this pervasive surveillance and outright censorship and harassment is about trying to control everyone’s activity, communications and thinking in order to protect their rule over the people.

Now all this is being take to new ominous levels by the Trump/Pence regime. Earlier this year, for example, the U.S. government ordered the website that was used to organize people for the political protests against the Trump inauguration to turn over information on roughly 1.3 million visitors to the site. And the Homeland Security Department demanded that Twitter hand over the user(s) behind an account critical of Trump. The demand was withdrawn, but around the same time, Trump signed a bill releasing the ISPs from responsibility for protecting the data of users. As a Wired magazine writer commented, such moves “create the conditions that allow a regime, whether it’s headed by Trump or another administration down the line, to squelch dissent. It’s part of a broader trend around the world, in which numerous governments are whittling away at internet freedoms.”

The erasing of net neutrality is taking place in the context of the Trump/Pence regime’s rapid-fire assaults on civil liberties and the rights of the people. This is a regime that brands a large sections of the media as “fake news” and even paints them as the “enemy”... that has backed the “free speech rights” of open fascists and white supremacists while attacking radical professors and student protesters... that is “investigating” activists protesting police murder of Black people, labeling them as “Black Identity Extremists”... and carrying out other outrages. In this light, the repeal of net neutrality is another major step in the Trump/Pence regime’s march toward fascist consolidation of power.


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