Plutocrats on the march

Plutocrats on the march

- in Top Story, Weekly Briefing
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Trumpists prepare to raze another vital common good law

It’s hard to keep up these days with the flood of poisonous ideas spewing from Donald Trump’s junta by the Potomac. At times, it seems as if Trump is not just a pal and admirer of Vladimir Putin, but that he is, quite literally, attempting to institute his own American version of the corrupt kleptocracy that the Russian dictator has constructed from the rubble of the old Soviet Union. Pick a public policy topic (any topic), type in a quick web search, and one can almost invariably and instantly find several ways in which the Prevaricator/Predator-in-Chief and his cronies are trying to undermine and/or sell-off our American democracy.

Perhaps it’s because of this point – the fact that we can still, at least, search online and keep track of most of the skullduggery Trump is up to – that one of the president’s currently extant initiatives rates as among the most frightening. The subject is the somewhat difficult-to-grasp, but massively important issue of “net neutrality” – the idea that Internet service providers must treat all websites the same when it comes to the speed and quality with which they connect web users to them.

“Net neutrality”: The basics

Today marks a national day of action to save net neutrality. This Thursday, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is scheduled to take action on a proposal to end it. What net neutrality is basically about is the idea that Internet service providers (ISP’s) cannot establish “fast lanes” and “slow lanes” on the Internet and then charge people more to use the fast lanes.

This from a website run by advocates at the website www.battleforthenet.com:

What is net neutrality? Why does it matter?

Net neutrality is the principle that Internet providers like Comcast & Verizon should not control what we see and do online. In 2015, startups, Internet freedom groups, and 3.7 million commenters won strong net neutrality rules from the US Federal Communication Commission (FCC). The rules prohibit Internet providers from blocking, throttling, and paid prioritization—‘fast lanes’ for sites that pay, and slow lanes for everyone else.”

And the following is a somewhat more thorough explanation from a recent interview with Professor Victor Pickard, a leading national proponent of net neutrality who serves as an associate professor at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of “America’s Battle for Media Democracy.”

Net neutrality protections are essentially safeguards that prevent internet service providers (ISPs) from interfering with the internet. Net neutrality gives the FCC the regulatory authority to prevent ISPs like Comcast and Verizon from slowing down or blocking certain types of content. It also prevents them from offering what’s known as paid prioritization, where an ISP could let particular websites or content creators pay more for faster streaming and download times. With paid prioritization an ISP could shake down a company like Netflix or an individual website owner, coercing them to pay more in order to be in the fast lane.

Net neutrality often gets treated as a sort of technocratic squabble over ownership and control of internet pipes. But in fact it speaks to a core social contract between government, corporations, and the public. What it really comes down to is, how can members of the public obtain information and services, and express ourselves creatively and politically, without interference from massive corporations?”

The chief architect of the proposal to end mandated net neutrality is – you won’t be surprised to learn – a former Verizon Communications boss whom Trump made chair of the FCC earlier this year named Ajit Pai. According to Pai and his allies, the current net neutrality rule holds back private investments and actually injures the public. As a supposed example of the latter phenomenon, Pai has repeatedly claimed that by preventing Internet service providers from providing extra fast access to some websites, net neutrality disadvantages certain people with disabilities. For example, in a July filing with the FCC, the giant telecommunications company Comcast claimed that:

a telepresence service tailored for the hearing impaired requires high-definition video that is of sufficiently reliable quality to permit users ‘to perceive subtle hand and finger motions’ in real time” and that “paid prioritization may have other compelling applications in telemedicine.”

In other words, the company (along with people like Pai) are claiming that the reason to end net neutrality is to help the sick and the vulnerable.

We are not making this up.

Not surprisingly, many of the Trump plutocracy’s paid mouthpieces at groups like the far right, Koch Brothers-funded Heritage Foundation are also on board with the repeal scheme. Last spring, a Heritage Senior Research Fellow said the repeal would “be a significant victory for free enterprise” and “a direct strike against the unparalleled regulatory overreach that ran rampant for the previous eight years.”

What’s really going on here?

In the era of Trump, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out what‘s really driving the plan to end net neutrality. Some of the proponents may have convinced themselves that they’re on the side of truth, justice and the American way, but, as is the case in essentially every other Trump deregulatory scheme (see, for instance, the ongoing effort to eviscerate the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau) the real agenda here is simple: to put more money in the pockets of giant corporations and the individuals who control them.

Michael Winship, the chief partner and co-writer of veteran muckraking journalist and commentator Bill Moyers, put it this way yesterday in a blistering essay at www.BillMoyers.com:

In his obdurate denial of the desires of the public (both on the right and left, by the way) Pai embraces certain of the more delightful aspects of Trumpism: doublespeak, belittling the other side, blaming everyone else for problems and claiming fake news when presented with the facts. In a recent speech defending his position, sponsored by the conservative, free-market think tank R Street Institute and the Lincoln Network, Pai described what he called ‘wild accusations, fear-mongering and hysteria’ and made fun of such celebrities as Cher, Mark Ruffalo and George Takei who have spoken out in support of net neutrality.

What’s more, he claimed it wasn’t the ISPs that were trying to take over the web, but that content providers Google, Facebook and Twitter were the real culprits: ‘They might cloak their advocacy in the public interest, but the real interest of these internet giants is in using the regulatory process to cement their dominance in the internet economy.’

Chairman Pai, this is called projection. You claim to be preserving internet freedom but in truth your attempt to destroy net neutrality does just the opposite. In pushing your case you’re ignoring the people, the facts and the law.”

Where things stand

At this point, the Thursday vote of FCC commissioners appears to be on schedule and unlikely to be stopped.

Even if the vote does go ahead, however, this doesn’t mean that the fight is over. Congress retains power to reverse the ruling – or even to halt Thursday’s vote – if it chooses to and there are powerful voices calling for such action. Yesterday, a group of Internet pioneers like Steve Wozniak – the co-founder of Apple Computer – issued an open letter calling on members of Congress to take precisely such action.

Not surprisingly, many conservative North Carolina members of Congress support Pai’s plan and seem unlikely to come to the rescue anytime soon. This appears to be the case for both Senators Tillis and Burr, who together, have pocketed a cool $100,000 in telecom industry campaign contributions according to the website, The Daily Dot.

Assuming the FCC moves forward, litigation challenging the action is also sure to follow – litigation that could quite conceivably delay final repeal until well after the 2018 election (and maybe even the 2020 election).

The bottom line: For those interested in resisting Trumpism and preserving the infrastructure that knits together our democracy, preserving net neutrality is a vitally important cause. Stay tuned and stay engaged.