"Net neutrality" will be the law of the land following the Federal Communications Commission's vote to reclassify broadband Internet services as public utilities. Please take some time this week to thank the outspoken citizens who made this possible. These heroes of the open Internet are regular folk, just like you and me, with names like Microsoft, eBay, Facebook, Google and Amazon. Congrats to a major industry on its lobbying victory!
Because telecom and cable companies vociferously oppose regulation of their terrible, anti-consumer practices, it's easy to paint the net neutrality fight as pitting greedy and self-interested corporations against earnest and sincere activists. But that's reductive and wrong. The biggest hint that that isn't the correct lens through which to view this fight is that the earnest and sincere activists won the fight, and the corporations lost. That isn't just a Washington rarity, it is a Washington impossibility. No, net neutrality won (pending future court battles) because the earnest and sincere activists represented a different group of greedy and self-interested corporations.
The FCC received a record four million public comments on their net neutrality proposal. The overwhelming majority of those comments supported the basic tenets of net neutrality. The New York Times quotes one excited activist: "This shows that the Internet has changed the rules of what can be accomplished in Washington." It has, though not quite in the way he means. The net neutrality fight shows that the Internet industry can consider its political influence to be on par with that of older, more established industries. Those public comments would have meant nothing at all if they hadn't represented a policy priority also shared by Google, one of the largest and most influential corporations in the world. And even Google wouldn't have beaten Verizon and Comcast alone—it lost the last time it had this fight, in 2010. Google had to make like a real global megacorporation and form an alliance with its ostensible competitors in its own field in order to present a unified front to official Washington — just as energy, healthcare, finance and telecommunications companies have been doing for decades. The corporate Internet grew up, formed a cartel, and won a major policy battle.
Don't get me wrong. Regulating broadband as a utility is (in my opinion) the correct policy. This is as close as Washington gets to a victory for the forces of "good." I would just urge everyone to keep in mind that the forces of good in this instance won not because millions of people made their voices heard, but because the economic interests of a few giant corporations aligned with the position of those millions of people. And I say that not simply to be a killjoy (though I do love being a killjoy), but because if anything is to change, we musn't convince ourselves that actual victory for the masses is possible in this fundamentally broken system. Please don't begin to believe that the American political establishment is anything but a corrupt puppet of oligarchy.
American politicians are responsive almost solely to the interests and desires of their rich constituents and interest groups that primarily represent big business. Casual observation of American politics over the last quarter-century or so should make that clear, but if you want supporting evidence, look to the research of Vanderbilt political scientist Larry Bartels, and Princeton's Martin Gilens and Northwestern's Benjamin Page. Gilen and Page's conclusions are easily summed up: "economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence."
Political battles are won when the rich favor them. America's rich have lately become rather progressive on certain social issues, and those issues have rather suddenly gone from political impossibilities to achievable dreams. This is why same-sex marriage is an inevitability and marijuana decriminalization seems more likely than ever, but we can't dismantle megabanks or raise the estate tax. This is why healthcare reform couldn't happen without the buy-in (and buying off) of the bloated, awful healthcare industry and the doctor cartel. (And speaking of the doctor cartel: One of the few major political issues where the ultra-rich seem to have trouble getting their way is immigration reform, but there are plenty of wealthy professionals who rely on protectionism to keep their incomes elevated.) This dynamic explains the entire "education reform" project, which is an attempt to dismantle and re-create the American public school system, dreamed up (and almost solely supported) by the wealthy elite, most of whom have no education expertise or experience in urban public schools.
We have net neutrality for the same reason that copyright terms will be extended indefinitely forever and the Defense Department will keep being forced to buy incredibly expensive planes that don't actually work: Because a large industry had a strong opinion on the subject.
Photo: Google's Eric Schmidt enjoys a beverage at the 2010 World Economic Forum in Davos.
Credit: AP Images