Monopoly Power and Network Neutrality

The FCC is scheduled to decide the fate of Internet access on Thursday, Dec 14. Will anyone anywhere in the U.S. be able to pay one basic fee to access information on the Internet from the most popular to the most arcane content providers? If all indications are correct, probably not. ISPs will increasingly decide on what terms we access the content we want. Prepare for your bills to go up. 

You might wonder why the FCC is so focused on rolling back such an overwhelmingly popular policy in favor of giving more power to the most hated corporations in America. It isn't because the most recent rules to codify the long-standing principle of non-discrimination has harmed investment. It hasn't

But something struck us about the lobbying campaigns around this issue. This graphic from the Sunlight Foundation shows just how hard the top telecommunications companies and their lobbying associations have focused on defeating network neutrality. The image shows lobbying reports generated by lobbyists and whether or not the entity is opposed (red) or in favor of (green) network neutrality. As you can see, the amount of red coming from the ISPs that serve most of America vastly outstrips the green.


Seeing Red

Since the Sunlight Foundation published this graphic in 2013, the landscape has changed in important ways. The two top firms supporting network neutrality were taken over by big monopolists that oppose maintaining an open Internet.

In 2015, Verizon acquired AOL for $4.4 billion and CenturyLink recently completed its acquisition of Level 3. CenturyLink, which sued the FCC over Title II reclassification, does not support network neutrality. The next strongest net neutrality supporter was Google, which took a quieter position in the 2015 debate over Title II but has since spoken out in favor of keeping the rules. 

As a result of these acquisitions and the resulting concentration in the ISPs market, the small number of telecommunications companies that had favored network neutrality just a few years ago are now in the opposing camp. Without other viewpoints to counter the army of lobbyists passing on the anti-neutrality position, lawmakers will forever be surrounded by one perspective. Others, like Netflix and Etsy have stepped up, but the lobbying firepower is clearly on the side of the small number of massive monopolies that want to create new tollbooths on the Internet to extract still more revenue from subscribers. 

Lawmakers have limited time and an unlimited list of issues to resolve; they rely on others to offer information. Often their time is monopolized by lobbyists who are paid to get results from the companies that retain them. Without divergent viewpoints, we can't expect lawmakers to implement policies that consider the needs of everyone.

Deja Vu

As we've seen on the state level, when Comcast, AT&T, and the other giant ISPs flex their muscles by monopolizing the flow of information to policy makers, what's best for average folks falls by the wayside. Deep pockets from these multi-million dollar corporations have allowed them to cut off state legislators from their consituents. It's much easier to decide that removing local telecommunications authority is the best decision if local people don't get the chance to express their thoughts.

The problem with monopolies is far greater than their capacity to raise our prices. When they make the rules for something as important as how the Internet functions, they cause far more damage. 

Network Neutrality logo glow by Camilo Sanchez (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons.