Elections

What Trump’s election means for net neutrality – and your Netflix

An audience member snaps a cell phone photo as Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally at the Veterans Memorial Building, Saturday, Dec. 19, 2015, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
An audience member snaps a cell phone photo as Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally at the Veterans Memorial Building, Saturday, Dec. 19, 2015, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. AP

Net neutrality, President Barack Obama’s signature policy on technology, is another part of his legacy likely to go on the chopping block under Donald Trump’s administration, a possibility that cheers telecom companies and alarms consumer advocates.

From Obamacare to the Dream Act, Donald Trump has suggested throughout his campaign - and in his “Contract with the American Voter” - what he intends to do as soon as he takes the oath of office. But what does he actually have the legal power to d

Net neutrality, or Open Internet, is the principle that all web traffic should be treated equally and your internet company can’t interfere with your traffic.

While Trump did not talk about the issue during the campaign, the appointment of vocal net neutrality critic Jeffrey Eisenach to head the technology transition team indicates the direction his administration could take.

Lobbyists and special interests are running this transition when it comes to the Internet.

Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy

“What Trump appears to be doing on internet and privacy policy is basically allowing the swamp to decide our digital future, allowing crocodiles to eat up our rights,” said Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, which advocates for consumer online privacy. “What the big cable and phone companies want Trump to do is to turn the internet over to them to run as a private fiefdom.”

Trump’s FCC will likely roll back Obama’s landmark equal-access rules

The net neutrality rules ban providers such as Verizon, Comcast and AT&T from slowing down or speeding up content through paid “fast lanes.” These would give companies with deep pockets, like Netflix, Google or Amazon, an advantage over small companies, startups or alternative media.

In a big win for net neutrality advocates, last year the Federal Communication Commission voted to reclassify the internet as a public utility, which means it can be regulated like telephone companies. Internet companies vowed to fight these regulations all the way to the Supreme Court if need be – but now they may not have to.

“That (FCC decision) has a big target on its back and is likely to get overturned under the new administration,” said Doug Brake, a telecom policy analyst at the nonprofit Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. “It won’t be difficult to roll it back.”

Striking down the rules would be fiercely opposed by online companies like Netflix. Cable and telecom companies, which have been aggressively building their own video services to compete, would applaud it. Internet service providers, or ISPs, could have the option to make consumers pay more for high-speed streaming on sites like Netflix or Hulu – or use their own services.

Some net neutrality advocates argue that Trump should personally be in favor of the equal-treatment rules. The reason most Americans were able to respond to Trump’s campaign message was that platforms like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube provided a visible, easily accessible alternative to big media, Chester said.

“If Trump allows the Republican Congress to shut down net neutrality, then the very media system that delivered him the presidency will be under the control of the big media companies he has railed against,” he said in an interview. “It doesn’t make sense.”

Republicans opposed net neutrality as “Obamacare for the Internet”

Republicans have long attacked net neutrality rules as a regulatory power grab by the government. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, famously tweeted that the protections amount to “Obamacare for the internet” in 2014.

Technology policy analysts agree that Trump is likely to follow the Republican line on deregulation when it comes to the web.

THE FCC’S 3-2 PARTY LINE VOTE IN FAVOR OF THE OPEN INTERNET RULES IN 2015 RECLASSIFIED BROADBAND INTERNET AS A PUBLIC UTILITY, ALLOWING THE AGENCY TO REGULATE INTERNET SERVICE PROVIDERS UNDER THE STRICT LAWS OF COMMON CARRIERS, THE SAME AS TELEPHONE COMPANIES.

Eisenach, Trump’s technology transition leader, is a fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute and has testified before Congress against the net neutrality regulations. He has been criticized for advocating against net neutrality, as a scholar, while receiving funds from Verizon and other telecom interests to underwrite his work.

Consumer advocates, who see the net neutrality protections as the “First Amendment of the broadband age,” are alarmed at the appointment of Eisenach and other industry-friendly team members.

“Trump and all the industry lobbyists flooding Washington will try to roll back all of our victories – starting with net neutrality,” said Craig Aaron, president of the pro-Open Internet group Free Press, in a blog post.

All that stuff about equal traffic – in engineering it’s impossible, politically it’s nonsense, commercially it’s ridiculous.

Scott Cleland, who served as Deputy U.S. Coordinator for Communications and Information Policy for President George H.W. Bush

Another concern is that rolling back the regulations could have a domino effect on online privacy protections just passed in October, which require ISPs to get permission from subscribers before selling their data to third parties.

The regulations were fiercely opposed by telecom giants including Comcast, AT&T and Verizon, who were building lucrative business models by targeting ads through their access to user data.

Net neutrality fears are just a “boogeyman agenda”

Fear of of what would happen if the net neutrality decision is reversed is overblown, said Scott Cleland, who served as Deputy U.S. Coordinator for Communications and Information Policy for President George H.W. Bush.

“The whole net neutrality debate has had a boogeyman agenda, which was purely speculative, about this horrible thing that would happen unless we imprison the ISP industry,” he told McClatchy in an interview.

Echoing many industry advocates and Republican lawmakers, Cleland said there is a “strong consensus” that net neutrality could be quickly settled in legislation.

“If people are reasonable, the issue is imminently solvable quickly next year,” he said. “But it probably won’t be, because net neutrality proponents want to have an issue to agitate about. They don’t want to solve it – it’s the biggest fund-raising issue for them.”

Deregulation advocates who also believe the whole issue has been hyped up and won’t have a negative impact on consumers are hopeful about Trump’s election and a unified Republican government.

“We have a new opportunity to end the divisive and distracting fight over net neutrality,” Berin Szóka, president of the free market think tank Tech Freedom, said in a post the day after the election. He called the FCC decision one of the “staggering power grabs made under Obama.”

That echoes Trump’s only input on the issue, in a 2014 tweet.

“Obama’s attack on the internet is another top down power grab. Net neutrality is the Fairness Doctrine. Will target the conservative media,” he tweeted, referring to a 1949 law that required broadcasters to report the news in a balanced manner. It was repealed in 1987, and has nothing to do with net neutrality. The FCC doesn’t have the power to interfere with any political content, conservative or otherwise.

As the agency did under Obama, the Trump administration’s FCC will face the escalating challenge of catching up to technology that advances much faster than the government’s ability to regulate, or even understand it.

The president-elect’s transition team did not return a request for comment.

Vera Bergengruen: 202-383-6036, @verambergen

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