President-elect Donald Trump’s promise to “drain the DC swamp” has become a bit of a running gag as his administration plugs a wide variety of lobbyists and cronies into key cabinet positions. Telecom is certainly no exception, with Trump appointing a number of telecom sector lobbyists and allies to guide telecom policy and help select a new FCC boss. One of these picks doesn’t believe telecom monopolies exist. None of them can actually admit the broadband market isn’t competitive. And all of them have made it abundantly clear that they intend to roll back net neutrality and effectively gut the FCC from the inside out.
Trump completed a telecom sector trifecta of anti-net neutrality advisors this week, with the selection of American Enterprise Institute think tanker Roslyn Layton. Layton joins Jeffrey Eisenach (a long-standing Verizon consultant) and Mark Jamison (a former Sprint lobbyist) to form a perfect circle of industry allies — all of whom are on record opposing not only net neutrality, but nearly every FCC effort to make the broadband sector more competitive. All three have been visiting fellows over at the American Enterprise Institute, which takes money from large telecom providers in exchange for muddying the discourse waters.
Over at the AEI blog, Layton has consistently made her disdain for net neutrality very clear. Like so many broadband industry allies, Layton insists that net neutrality protections for consumers aren’t necessary, and that the concept is all some kind of secretive cabal on the part of Netflix to ride incumbent ISP pipes for free:
“Using their own definitions, however, companies such as Netflix hijack the language of net neutrality to lobby for regulatory favors. They want the government to mandate that transit costs they pay for today become free. In the offline world, such a deal would mean that retailers could not negotiate agreements with their suppliers or even where products could be placed on shelves.
This idea that net neutrality is a phantom problem and mostly about somehow secretly giving Netflix free bandwidth is a ridiculous idea we’ve debunked time and time again. Current FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai, among the finalists to lead the next FCC, has tried to claim net neutrality is some kind of unholy Netflix cabal for years. Why the disdain and bizarre focus on Netflix? Incumbent cable companies loathe Netflix for its support of net neutrality, opposition to usage caps, and the erosion of their legacy TV subscriber base, so they work pretty tirelessly to smear the company as often as possible via proxy policy voices.
Blaming everything on Netflix helps incumbent broadband ISPs (and their allied think tankers, consultants, and lobbyists) avoid two glaring truths: one, that net neutrality is a symptom of the disease that is limited broadband competition, but if you admit the broadband market isn’t competitive, then you have to actually do something about it; and two, that net neutrality has broad, bi-partisan support among the public. Pretending net neutrality is solely about giving Netflix “free stuff” is a handy narrative that obfuscates both truths.
Layton, like Eisenach and Jamison, also opposed the FCC’s basic new privacy protections. Those rules, which only require that ISPs are transparent about what’s being collected and provide working opt-out tools, were passed only after Verizon was busted modifying user data packets to track users around the internet — without informing them or providing working opt out tools. The FCC also acted after AT&T began trying to charge broadband customers a premium just to protect their own privacy, and Cable ONE hinted at offering worse customer service to users with bad credit scores.
Like net neutrality, these violations are just another symptom of the lack of broadband competition, and the bad behavior on the part of incumbent ISPs has been fully apparent to anybody paying attention. But according to Layton, these privacy rules were just “partisan” gamesmanship, and utterly unnecessary because ISPs weren’t doing anything wrong:
“Chairman Wheeler’s three years at the FCC have broken records in partisanship, with more votes along party lines for rulemaking than previous commissions combined. Consider the recent online privacy rulemaking, which came about only because the FCC’s Open Internet rules reclassified Internet broadband under Title II, giving FCC new authority to regulate Internet privacy. Simply stated, the FCC rulemaking was not born out of any concluded necessity.”
Yes, the FCC has long split along partisan lines, quite often on issues (like net neutrality) that shouldn’t be partisan. Under Wheeler, that was largely thanks to Commissioners Ajit Pai and Mike O’Rielly, who voted down nearly every consumer-benefiting policy the FCC tried to enact. That includes the duo voting down every single attempt to hold AT&T accountable for outright fraud, whether that involved AT&T ripping off programs for low income families, turning a blind eye to abuse of IP Relay systems intended for the hearing imparied, or intentionally helping crammers rip off AT&T customers by making fraudulent charges on bills harder to detect.
Under the guidance of Layton, Eisenach and Jamison, you can expect every effort to hold incumbent ISPs accountable for bad behavior to evaporate. Gone will be the FCC’s net neutrality rules. Gone will be the agency’s new privacy protections. Gone will be efforts to shore up broadband competition. In addition to selecting an FCC boss that will be sure to avoid admitting any substantive faults on the part of incumbent ISPs, you can expect a rewrite of the Communications Act in 2017 with a full focus on hamstringing the FCC’s ability to protect consumers while dramatically slashing its funding.
This tends to get lost among farmed think tank pie charts and misleading arguments from dollar-per-holler economists and fauxcademics, but boiled down to their purest essence, these positions are about one thing and one thing only: protecting giant incumbent ISP revenues. This isn’t really about deregulation — given that these same folks are generally ok with awful regulation, just as long as it’s AT&T, Verizon and Comcast writing the law. And the ultimate irony remains that this gutting of all popular, bipartisan consumer protections will be conducted under the false banner of “populist reform.”