Donald Trump’s handpicked Federal Communication Commission chairman, Ajit Pai, is rewriting the rules of the internet in this country – and it’s going to send American jobs overseas.
The New York Times reported Tuesday that the FCC plans to repeal “net neutrality” – the rules preventing discrimination and unfair practices in internet access. We’ve known something like this was in the works for months, but now we know it’s a "full" repeal of the regulations that treat internet access like other vital utilities. Telecom companies would be able to charge people and businesses higher fees depending on what web sites they are visiting or what kind of data they are accessing.
This would be bad enough as a straight consumer protection issue. Broadband companies like Spectrum and Verizon shouldn’t be able to charge consumers more to access Netflix versus their own video content, or soak Netflix for bribes to give customers better download speeds for their service than for Hulu or Amazon Prime Streaming. The possibilities for legalized discrimination and extortion are basically endless. This is crony capitalism. We should be paying for how much bandwidth we use, without regard for where the data’s going or where it’s from.
But this goes far beyond home internet users.
We’re big boosters of New York as America’s biggest up-and-coming tech hub because of our huge workforce, our incredible educational institutions, and our position as a global capital of finance, health, commerce, law and diplomacy already. And New York City’s success is measurable: Tech jobs jumped 30 percent from 2006 to 2016. That’s 76,000 new jobs in 10 years, with salaries averaging $106,000 in 2016. But the truth is, anywhere in America could be the next tech hub – because with broadband access, a good idea and the right skills, anyone in America could build the next successful tech business from their living room. Tech, e-commerce and internet-based businesses are a massive and growing industry in this country, and we all benefit from them.
Here’s the thing – these innovators depend on a level playing field online. If your deeper-pocketed competitor can pay AT&T or Comcast to speed their data up and slow your data down, they can snuff out your new business. If your new service is too slow to be useful for the people who use it, how can you grow, develop your product and compete?
This is a recipe for monopolies, and it will stifle competition, new products and new jobs. Innovators – and the investors who fund them – will look to other countries with fairer rules that are written to protect consumers and encourage new businesses, instead of exploiting both.
We need to do three things right now. First, we need to put to bed the dangerous myth that Republicans are pro-business. Aside from the big telecom corporations themselves, no one in business benefits from a repeal of these rules, and millions of innovators will be put at a disadvantage. Aside from them, no one asked for this.
Second, we need to fight this. The stakes are the internet itself, and whether huge telecom companies get to tell us how we use it and charge us extra for the privilege. The FCC’s vote is on Dec. 14, and every American should get loud in opposition to this plan.
Third, we need a toolkit for state and local governments to protect fairness on the internet. The FCC sets nationwide rules for the internet and other communications media, but plenty of broadband providers are governed by franchise agreements with local governments. We need to figure out how much net neutrality regulation we can shoehorn into these agreements.
This should be also be an alarm bell spurring us all to work faster on government-sponsored broadband access. Even when we can’t tell the private broadband providers what rules to observe, cities and states can still build public broadband networks and write the rules for those themselves. And there are plenty of places in this country still waiting for high-quality broadband, because the private sector has refused to invest in expanding access. Even in the greater New York metropolitan area this is a real problem. Public networks may be the solution.
This is not just a consumer protection issue. This is a jobs issue. Tech investors, tech firms and tech jobs will flee when their free and fair access to the internet is not protected. To remain a world business leader and to keep our economy strong, we cannot let that happen.
Gale Brewer is the borough president of Manhattan and Ben Kallos is a member of the New York City Council.