In December, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted to undo net neutrality requirements put in place by the Obama Administration.
Net neutrality – the idea that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) must treat all online traffic the same – is one of the founding principles of the internet.
Net neutrality means that AT&T cannot block you from watching “Handmaid’s Tale” because they don’t like the programming on Hulu. But it also has ramifications for many of the social movements that are alive today, like #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo. These campaigns rely on the free flow of information the internet has always had, and without net neutrality requirements, ISPs could choose to block messages they disagree with. Net neutrality means the internet is fair and open for everyone – even spirited advocacy communities with ideas to spread.
Now President Trump’s FCC has decided ISPs can make profit-based decisions to the detriment of those groups, in addition to internet consumers and entrepreneurs.
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The FCC’s actions give ISPs unprecedented control of what we see, create, and say online. And ISPs are already angling to take advantage of this newfound control. One example – AT&T’s $85 billion purchase of Time Warner, which should be a major cause of concern for those who want a free and open internet. This merger would make AT&T one of the most powerful media companies in the world, and with the FCC’s actions there would be no laws in place to keep the newly-formed AT&T from engaging in practices that defy net neutrality.
AT&T is the third-largest broadband provider in the United States. It also has tens of millions of satellite and cable subscribers, thanks in large part to its subsidiary DirecTV. In addition to an outsized physical infrastructure, a merger would give the new AT&T control of Time Warner’s vast network of content makers: HBO, Turner Sports (which broadcasts the NBA and NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament), and the Warner Brothers film catalogue. Without net neutrality protections, AT&T could choose to make some of its content available only to its subscribers – think a special “Game of Thrones” episode for AT&T subscribers only. It could choose to block subscribers from programming or messages it disagrees with or that belongs to a competitor. Is that really the kind of control we want AT&T (and Verizon, Comcast, etc.) to have over content?
Right now the AT&T/Time Warner merger is on hold, thanks to a surprising lawsuit by the U.S. Department of Justice. It remains to be seen, though, whether the Department of Justice can be viewed as an unbiased dissenter to the merger. Some have already suggested that the Justice Department’s lawsuit was initiated to curry favor with President Trump, who has consistently excoriated Time Warner subsidiary CNN. AT&T can make a credible claim the lawsuit against them is politically motivated.
State attorneys general could be the last line of defense for net neutrality. N.C. Attorney General Josh Stein has already filed suit against the FCC’s repeal of net neutrality. With the stakes so high, I believe he should also file a lawsuit to block the proposed merger between AT&T and Time Warner. Unlike the US Justice Department’s lawsuit, this action could not be viewed as a political maneuver to attack the president’s perceived enemies in the press. More importantly, it would send a powerful message that net neutrality is of the utmost importance to North Carolinians, and that we value inclusivity online. We cannot allow massive Internet Providers to have unchecked power over what should be a free, open, and neutral internet.
Stella Adams lives in Durham and is a nationally recognized expert in fair housing, predatory lending, mortgage fraud and investigation techniques. She most recentlyserved as the Senior Policy Advisor to the National Fair Housing Training Academy.