It’s Friday, so let’s look at the Historic Internet Moments ledger for 2015. Net neutrality survived a direct assault. Comcast’s monopolistic pursuit of Time Warner Cable has been abandoned. We’ve gracefully sidestepped not one but two potential online dystopias, and it’s not even May.
What’s been accomplished already in 2015 is all the more remarkable considering that neither of these results was a given, or even considered remotely likely just a short time ago. “About a year ago I was ready to call it quits,” says Tim Wu, policy advocate, Columbia Law School professor, and the man who coined the term “net neutrality” in the first place. “Between the NSA, net neutrality falling apart, the merger and the assumption it was going to happen… But the situation has reversed itself.” That reversal couldn’t have come at a better time.
Let’s start with Comcast’s retreat, since it’s still got that new-victory smell. Had its merger with Time Warner Cable gone through, we would have been faced with not just one more cable monopoly—and all the lack of choice and stunted innovation that comes with it—we would have consolidated so much of this country’s broadband that everyone from infrastructure companies like Level 3 to content providers like Netflix would have felt the pinch. Remember, too, that Comcast both controls how millions of Americans access the internet and owns NBC Universal, which means the deal would have put the fate of any online video platform in the hands of a company incentivized to crush it.
That the Comcast-Time Warner Cable deal should be stopped was never really in doubt, but until recently there wasn’t much in the FCC’s history to indicate that it was going to do anything about it. The agency is headed, after all, by Tom Wheeler, whose resumé includes stints as president of both the Cellular Telecom and Internet (CTIA) Association and the National Cable and Telecom Association (NCTA). In other words, the fate of the merger was largely in the hands of a man who built his career lobbying on behalf of the companies he is now charged with regulating. That’s not someone you would expect to crash a Big Cable wedding, calling it an “unacceptable risk to competition and innovation.”
And yet he did.
What we averted was an alternate universe in which Comcast and Time Warner trapped 35 million people in a hellscape of poor customer service and even worse pricing models.
Those same ties are what made the FCC’s February net neutrality ruling so surprising. The assumption had for some time been that corporate interests would prevail; the issues were too complicated, the required regulations to drastic. Instead, writing in WIRED, the FCC announced it would change the way that internet service providers are classified entirely, to ensure that online traffic is treated equally no matter where it comes from.
It’s going to be difficult to appreciate the full weight of these outcomes, in the same way it’s difficult to appreciate how you didn’t fall into a manhole yesterday; from the consumer’s vantage point, they both preserve the status quo. The internet will act and feel and cost pretty much the same.
What we averted, though, was an alternate universe in which Comcast and Time Warner trapped 35 million people in a hellscape of poor customer service and even worse pricing models, one where certain sites and services were delivered more slowly than others (or weren’t delivered at all) unless you or they tithed to the ISPs. We didn’t make the internet that much better this year, but we saved it from becoming demonstrably, intractably worse.
How We Won
Perhaps even more promising than the fact of these wins is how they were achieved. Wu credits the Obama administration’s decision to stand by its 2008 campaign promises, along with a regulatory body more interested in competition than entrenched interests. In other words, the FCC finally found its spine. The net neutrality fight, meanwhile, was aided greatly by 2.5 million online comments, submitted to the agency over a five-month period. Many of those were likely inspired by an explanatory video from comedian John Oliver that has piled up 9 million views on YouTube. It’s “a public that’s willing to act when it gets pissed off,” says Wu, “in ways that are not simply posting angry messages on forums but getting a little better involved.” It’s a tidy bit of symmetry; the internet needed protection, and found it within itself.
Hopefully there’s more where that came from. There’s still plenty of time left in 2015 for things to go wrong, and plenty of threats to worry about. The looming Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement between 12 countries—including the U.S.—features overly restrictive copyright law that’s been roundly denounced by the Electronic Frontier Foundation and others. Likewise, the Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act (CISA) continues to wend its way through our legislative corridors, and could well make it even easier for the government to glean your online data and habits from the internet companies you rely on daily. These would each, in their own way, make the the internet a less open, less private, less enjoyable place.
The good news is, neither TPP nor CISA has passed yet. No, you probably shouldn’t bet against either (CISA’s twin in the House of Representatives passed earlier this week). Then again, that’s what most people would have said about the net neutrality ruling a year ago, or Comcast-TWC last fall.
So let’s look at these not as threats but opportunities. You don’t have to look far to find petitions against TPP and CISA, or for contact information for your local representatives. We’ve saved the internet twice already in 2015; there’s no reason we can’t do it again.