The Trump administration has a brand-new corporate giveaway: the internet!
President Trump's chair of the Federal Communications Commission, Ajit Pai, announced last week that his agency was going to repeal the Obama-era rules on "net neutrality," which govern the basic structure of the internet. It's a horrible idea. But Americans need to start thinking about what to do in the future, after Trump is gone. We can restore this rule, sure — but we can also go even farther. And we should. For starters, let's levy even stronger regulations and market controls to make the internet much, much better than it currently is.
So what is net neutrality? The basic idea is that telecommunications providers have to treat all data equally. In keeping with the egalitarian philosophy of the World Wide Web, the point is to make the internet an open platform where people can communicate freely, and businesses compete on quality and price — not by attempting to force consumers one way or another with their market power.
Repealing net neutrality would make it possible to provide tiered service — where the cheapest internet package would buy you access to, say, Netflix, Google, and Facebook and a few other big-time services, but getting the full internet would cost more. Independent websites would likely flood onto new sub-websites hosted by the Facebooks of the world, where they'd have access to a bigger audience but would also be subject to certain exploitation at the hands of the platforms.
Additionally, given the fact that telecoms also own large content providers (Verizon owns Oath, Comcast owns NBC, and AT&T is attempting to buy Time Warner), it's also a guaranteed route for those companies to corral their customers into watching content provided by the same company. In a future without net neutrality, instead of being able to watch whatever is being produced by anyone, you'll either just have to submit to whatever the local monopoly is willing to provide, or pay through the nose for a universal service (if they'll even deign to provide that). So much for free-market competition!
However, net neutrality is not that strong of a regulation. Indeed, for all the well-deserved ruckus over this regulatory rollback, net neutrality is really pretty mild. It doesn't interfere with monopolist control over whole regions, or ensure a fair playing field for municipal broadband, or stop the platform monopolies from effectively privatizing the entire World Wide Web, or stop vertical integration of telecoms with content producers.
So here's a sketch of what can be done to improve things, after we bring back net neutrality.
First, ban vertical integration. As my colleague Jeff Spross argues, the Trump Department of Justice lawsuit against the proposed AT&T merger, while probably driven by Trump's bizarre anti-CNN animus, actually makes a lot of sense and should be supported. Vertical integration of communication and content is unjustifiable, highly prone to abuse, and should be banned permanently.
Second, bring in a new rule: local loop unbundling. This regulation — which is the standard in most places outside the United States — mandates that companies have to give their competitors access to the wires that hook up each individual connection to the local network trunk. That way you can have competition without start-up competitors having to build colossally expensive parallel networks to millions of homes — which realistically they aren't going to do. (Such a regulation was actually part of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, but the Supreme Court held that it didn't apply to cable internet, and so that part of the law is mostly a dead letter.) Studies demonstrate that other countries with local loop unbundling have cheaper and faster internet — indeed, with reasonably vigorous competition, net neutrality would be substantially less necessary.
Third, break up the big telecoms. Now, some level of local dominance is probably inevitable, because big internet pipes (like any major communication infrastructure), tends toward a natural monopoly. But at least we can keep companies from monopolizing whole multi-state regions — and with local loop unbundling, there will still be competition. Meanwhile, we can protect public options for the internet, in case cities or states want to set up their own internet service — forbidding stuff like the big telecoms running to their paid-up stooges in the North Carolina state legislature to protect themselves from competitive municipal broadband.
Fourth, break up and regulate the platform monopolies. For starters, Google should be forced to divest DoubleClick and YouTube, and placed under common carriage rules to stop it from abusing its search monopoly; Facebook should be forced to divest Instagram and WhatsApp, and its Facebook Messenger placed under interoperability rules so that it will work with other chat programs.
With a bit of reform and sustained attention, we can make American internet at least as cheap, fast, and reliable as it is in Europe or South Korea. With a bit of spending, we could wire up even the most remote rural communities as well. We just have to give it the old college try.