With multimillion-dollar lawsuits related to data misuse and data breaches peppering the news in the past few years, it’s hard to keep track of the many cases exposing how the internet is being misused and manipulated at the expense of consumers, the economy, national security, and our democratic system. We have become highly dependent on the internet for everything, but we have also become ignorantly myopic towards the biased practices and nontransparent behavior.
The battle over whether and how government should regulate the internet has been going on for well over a dozen years, with no optimism that it will be over soon. Wherever one stands in the net neutrality debate, one thing is clear: Net neutrality principles should either apply to everyone or to no one.
Since net neutrality went from being a concept to a policy to a repealed policy, and so forth, the public debate has shifted tremendously. While net neutrality was designed to prevent internet service providers from “throttling” or using “paid prioritization” against their competitors, it fails to encompass the myriad of different types of discriminatory and self-interested practices in which many other tech companies engage. This ultimately begs the question: why aren’t regulators turning their guns to the real threat?
Let’s take a step backwards and note that the very same net neutrality rules that were aimed at ISPs were also promulgated and pushed by the so-called edge providers like Netflix, Google and eBay. Yet, the very same companies who bang the drums to impose net neutrality rules are also engaged in the discriminating abuses themselves.
When allegations surfaced that Netflix was secretly throttling its video streams to wireless subscribers on AT&T’s and Verizon’s networks, U.S. regulators didn’t further investigate its traffic management practices. Other alleged cases suggest that Netflix is not alone and that the very practices that Netflix engaged in are happening rather frequently in the ecosystem.
And then there is the throttling of political content, involving discriminatory and censorship practices.
Intervening events in the last few years have dramatically exposed how several social media platforms have repeatedly censored specific messaging, like pro-life and pro-immigration enforcement content, and threatening free speech. Other examples highlighting the graveness of this problem include Pinterest blocking vaccination searches and Twitter banning tweets about transgender people earlier this year.
The problem of abusive practices has also been highlighted by Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai 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 are in fact deciding what content they see. These providers routinely block or discriminate against content they don’t like.”
We’ve been having essentially the same debate about who controls the internet for more than a decade now, and while we continue to have the same conversations, intervening events that threaten our security and democracy are becoming more rampant.
The conundrum is this: As a society, we rely almost entirely on the internet, and yet the level of security and transparency we accept is shockingly low.
Biased and anticompetitive practices are seemingly becoming graver and more frequent. We need to do a better job at providing basic safeguards for net neutrality and privacy — safeguards that do not unnecessarily interfere with innovation and consumer benefits. But most of all, we need to do this in a manner that encompasses the entire internet ecosystem.
Any discussion about open internet should begin by questioning the behavior that threatens our security, economy and democratic institutions. This is where we should refocus our regulatory efforts. After all, all abuses of power deserve scrutiny.
Dr. Krisztina Pusok is the director of policy and research at the American Consumer Institute, a nonprofit educational and research organization.
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