US lawmakers have been talking a big game about reining in the ballooning monopoly power of Big Tech companies like Facebook and Google. We’re about to find out how serious they really are.
The White House has nominated public interest advocate Gigi Sohn to become the fifth commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), and acting chair Jessica Rosenworcel to remain as the agency’s permanent chair. The Senate is expected to hold confirmation hearings in the coming weeks, and the way lawmakers vote will reveal whether they really want to crack down on monopoly power and Big Tech abuses—or whether that’s just an empty slogan to stoke their fundraising efforts.
The FCC is primarily responsible for providing oversight of cable and phone companies like AT&T, Comcast, and Verizon. With the rise of remote work and online classes, the COVID-19 pandemic has shown that the mission of ensuring equitable and affordable access to the internet is more urgent now than ever before. But getting the agency back up and running is also essential for addressing the tightening stranglehold that Silicon Valley giants maintain over our ability to communicate. Along with antitrust and privacy legislation, a functioning FCC is essential for ensuring we have alternatives to Big Tech.
Without net neutrality rules––which prevent Internet providers from blocking, throttling, discriminating or charging extra fees to access online content––and a functioning agency to enforce them, it’s only a matter of time before incumbent giants like Facebook, YouTube, and Amazon cut anti-competitive deals with internet service providers like Verizon and AT&T to prioritize their services, or exempt them from arbitrary (and unfair) data caps.
This would be disastrous for new platforms and services trying to compete with Silicon Valley giants. Why would anyone try a new, alternative social media app when it will cost them precious data, while Instagram is “free”? How could small businesses who host their own online stores compete in a world where Amazon can pay internet providers to make their site load twice as fast as the little guys? What happens to the livelihoods of independent musicians when you can stream all the music you want on Spotify and YouTube with no extra charge but have to pay a fee to access Bandcamp and Patreon?
These scenarios are not just theoretical. In 2017, Facebook negotiated monopolistic deals with internet providers in a number of developing countries as part of its controversial “Free Basics” scheme, which was eventually banned in India. When AT&T bought HBO, they made it so you could stream all the HBO video you wanted without it counting against your monthly data limit. When FaceTime first became available, AT&T blocked it unless users paid an extra fee. Verizon notoriously throttled the Internet connection of firefighters in California, telling them they needed to upgrade their plan. The list goes on.
Public anger at Big Tech companies like Facebook and Google has reached a boiling point. Both Democrats and Republicans have lambasted these corporate behemoths over everything from data harvesting and algorithmic manipulation to artificially amplifying harmful content and silencing political dissent. People desperately want alternatives on the menu––services with better privacy protections and more transparent content moderation practices. But if we don’t restore the rules that prevent Big Tech monopolies from joining in unholy matrimony with Big Telecom monopolies, we’ll be stuck eating whatever the Mark Zuckerbergs of the world decide to serve up––forever.
Restoring net neutrality should be noncontroversial. More than 80 percent of voters, including Democrats, Republicans, and Independents, opposed former FCC chairman Ajit Pai’s reckless repeal of these basic internet protections. Heck, even 75% of self-identified Trump supporters were against it. The repeal of Title II sparked some of the largest online protests in human history, prompting millions people to speak out, and unprecedented opposition from civil rights groups, veterans, librarians, teachers, small business owners, and grassroots groups on both the left and right.
But there is far more at stake with these nominations than net neutrality protections. Deadlocked at 2-2, the FCC has been effectively kneecapped throughout the entire COVID-19 pandemic, unable to do much of anything to address the deepening digital divide even as millions of people were forced to work and attend school from home.
Both Gigi Sohn and Jessica Rosenworcel have long track records working on issues of internet access, like building out broadband networks into rural areas and underserved communities, and pushing for competition and affordability. Sohn’s nomination has also won support from across the political spectrum, with policies that have found a rare common ground by eschewing partisanship and defending free speech.
Some Republican Senators have already started saber rattling about the nominations. But their hypocrisy is showing through. If conservatives are concerned about social media platforms removing individual posts, surely they should want basic rules to prevent Internet providers blocking entire websites and apps? After all, Comcast owns MSNBC, and AT&T owns CNN.
If there’s one thing that lawmakers from both parties should be able to agree on, it’s that kids shouldn’t be sitting outside of Taco Bell to do their homework in the middle of a pandemic. And the companies that connect us to the internet shouldn’t be able to dictate what we see and do once we get there.
Telecom companies have spent hundreds of millions of dollars lobbying against the public interest. They were even caught red handed funding a massive flood of fraudulent comments to the FCC, attempting to create the illusion of public support for pro-monopoly policies.
But it’s not going to work. Three Republican Senators voted to restore net neutrality back in 2018, citing overwhelming support from constituents and small businesses in their district. Legislation attempting to restore net neutrality passed in both the House and Senate with bipartisan support. Even Republicans who disagree on the details of the policy should agree that it’s best not to kneecap the agency responsible for ensuring Americans’ access to the Internet in the middle of an ongoing pandemic.
Telecom lobbyists can spin all the lies they want. Democrats and Republicans know that we need a functional FCC that’s working to get every American, regardless of their income or political affiliation, connected to the Internet. And we need that agency to be able to prevent companies like Google and Instagram from cutting anti-competitive deals that solidify their monopoly power, leaving us stuck with their parasitic business models forever.
The Senate Commerce Committee will take up Rosenworcel’s nomination Wednesday, along with privacy champion and facial recognition expert Alvaro Bedoya, who has been nominated for the Federal Trade Commission. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA), the committee’s chair, should schedule Sohn’s nomination immediately. It’s essential that both nominees move forward as quickly as possible, so that the FCC can get back to working for the public rather than telecom companies.
Any lawmaker who votes against confirming both of these FCC nominees should not be taken seriously when they go on TV and say they want to rein in Big Tech. They’re full of it.
Evan Greer is an activist, writer, and musician based in Boston. She’s the director of digital rights group Fight for the Future and writes regularly for outlets like the Washington Post, The Guardian, Time, and NBC News. Follow her on Twitter @evan_greer