In the eight years since the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision opened the door to unlimited corporate political spending, the fight over net neutrality shows how far our democracy has declined. We’ve gotten to the point where every major government decision that affects every American turns on which company is willing to spend more to influence politicians: Verizon or Google.
In 2003, law professor Tim Wu proposed the “network neutrality” principle to prevent anti-competitive control of the internet. Under network neutrality, cable and phone companies must treat all lawful, non-harmful internet traffic equally. About 83 percent of Americans—including 75 percent of Republicans and 89 percent of Democrats, and 86 percent of independents—support these protections.
But despite this bipartisan support, in the early 2000s, network neutrality was not an enforceable legal mandate for internet service providers. As the internet grew, broadband companies flexed their muscle to gain market advantage, blocking apps that competed with the companies’ own (often inferior) products; forcing customers to use the companies’ own (often inferior) search engines; and worse.
When the Federal Communication Commission acted to enforce net neutrality in 2008 and 2010, Comcast and Verizon sued and won both times. Finally, in 2015, over the dissent of commissioner (and former Verizon lawyer) Ajit Pai, the FCC issued its Open Internet Order, which survived a court challenge from the telecommunications lobby.
The industry had one more ace up its sleeve: In 2017, President Trump elevated Pai, the former Verizon lawyer, to head the FCC, and then appointed another former telecommunications industry lawyer to the commission.
In December, the FCC voted three to two to eliminate net neutrality. The commission’s decision may not stand—21 state attorneys general have sued the FCC, the Senate is one vote shy of overruling it, and some state governors have signed orders leveraging state contracting dollars to preserve net neutrality for their residents.
But for now net neutrality is dead.
How did the country get to the point where the federal government would eliminate a legal protection supported by the vast majority of the public? This year, the telecommunications industry spent $110 million lobbying Congress and the FCC, while industry giants such as Comcast, Verizon, and AT&T, and their executives gave millions of dollars to members of Congress of both parties.
Net neutrality suffers from what political scientist James Wilson called the problem of “entrepreneurial politics.” The benefits of net neutrality are broad—all Americans benefit as consumers and citizens—but diffuse. However, the “cost”—lost opportunities for the telecommunications industry to extract profit from the internet—is narrowly concentrated in a powerful lobby.
Companies like Facebook and Netflix benefited from net neutrality, too. With net neutrality gone, Comcast and Verizon can charge these companies extra “paid prioritization” fees to ensure their web traffic moves smoothly. That situation shifts the corporate political spending dynamic towards what Wilson called “interest-group politics”—a clash between well-funded special interests.
Technology companies, mainly Google and Microsoft, spent millions fighting the repeal of net neutrality. But not nearly as much as the telecommunications industry. Late last summer, Comcast, AT&T, Verizon, and Charter Communications had outspent tech companies by a three-to-one margin in contributions to a key House committee. Moreover, Big Telecom dramatically outspent Big Tech in lobbying.
Ultimately, the tech giants concluded that, while the repeal of net neutrality will be somewhat bad for them, it won’t be that bad. They’re rich enough to thrive without net neutrality. They would prefer not to have to pay for paid prioritization, but they can afford it.
Instead, the worst impacts of the new cable-controlled internet will fall on people with little money to throw around in Washington or on cable-company protection rackets: residents of rural communities, small business owners, and members of grassroots movements, especially those that represent women and people of color.
The key question here is not whether net neutrality is good or bad. The deeper issue for our broken democracy is that when a policy battle devolves into a spending contest between powerful industrial lobbies, the public interest gets lost. Occasionally, of course, after carefully studying an issue, government officials may conclude that the public is just wrong. And some issues involve fundamental constitutional rights that should not be up for political debate.
But it takes truly rose-colored glasses to believe that is what happened here. Big Telecom spent over $572 million lobbying the FCC and other agencies in the last decade—over a hundred million dollars in 2017 alone. (Meanwhile, millions of fake comments using fictitious or stolen identities marred the FCC’s public comment process, which is the main opportunity for ordinary people to voice their concerns.) That kind of money usually buys results.
The solution is not to pray that Big Tech will match Big Telecom dollar-for-dollar. The solution is to reform our campaign-finance system from the ground up, so that the voices of ordinary Americans aren’t buried under an avalanche of corporate money.
In the meantime, it’s Verizon and Google’s country—we’re just living in it.