Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission made headlines today with his latest comments on net neutrality. The Trump-appointed FCC Chairman, Ajit Pai, criticized large internet companies like Google, Facebook, and Twitter for undermining a free and open internet and censoring conservatives online.
His remarks were in response to criticism over the agency’s plan to repeal Obama-era net neutrality rules. Critics of the plan argue that repeal will endanger the continued existence of a free and open internet. Repeal, they say, will allow internet service providers (ISPs) to censor content and throttle download speeds.
FCC Chairman Calls Out Google, Facebook & Twitter In Net Neutrality Remarks
Pai claimed that large internet companies were already undermining a free and open internet. As evidence, he pointed to recent instances where Twitter has suspended or de-verified accounts of far-right activists, trolls, and white supremacists.
CNN reported that Pai said that Twitter has a “double standard when it comes to suspending or de-verifying conservative users’ accounts as opposed to those of liberal users.” Thus, he concluded, “When it comes to a free and open internet, Twitter is part of the problem.”
Pai also called out Google and Facebook. Again, from CNN:
Pai argued that it’s actually the “edge providers,” the FCC’s term for services like Google and Facebook, that “are a much bigger actual threat to an open Internet than broadband providers, especially when it comes to discrimination on the basis of viewpoint.”
Comments Echo Criticism Made By Russia’s RT
The FCC Chairman’s comments echo criticisms of these companies made by Russia’s RT news outlet. On November 24, RT ran a story titled, “Imagine! An ‘alternative internet’ not ‘completely in the hands of Facebook & Google’.” In this case, the “alternative internet” was a nebulous proposal by Kim Dotcom, founder of the file-sharing website, Megaupload.
“A global network controlled by users, rather than being dominated by corporations like Google and Facebook will offer more security,” the article begins. It continues,
Telecom giants in the US are set for a significant victory if Washington goes ahead with its plan to repeal so-called ‘net neutrality’ rules, enacted to prevent internet service providers from potentially cornering parts of the digital market and charging extra fees.
Meanwhile, global corporations like Google and Facebook are gathering ever-increasing troves of personal data from sometimes unwitting users. […]
So is there a way to escape from the increasing arbitrariness of the ‘regular internet’? [emphasis added]
Whataboutism, False Equivalence & Projection
Both RT and Pai deployed rhetorical tactics of whataboutism, projection, and false equivalence to sow confusion and doubt in the debate about net neutrality.
Both the RT article and Pai’s remarks essentially ask, “What about bad behavior by internet companies?” This shifts attention away from the potential abuse by ISPs were net neutrality to be repealed. Even if large internet companies are engaging in bad behavior now, that does not mean we should also allow ISPs to do the same or worse in the future. As in most cases of its use, this kind of whataboutism is a distraction from the real issue at hand.
But we also see in these arguments an example of false equivalence. The types of bad behavior in question are of a different kind. In the case of Google, Facebook, or Twitter, we see a lot of legitimate controversy recently over poor editorial oversight and opaque decision-making regarding use of these platforms. But the concern with repeal of net neutrality is the potential to connect to the internet at all in a meaningful way. Both are bad, but repeal of net neutrality portends a possible level of censorship that goes beyond just what people see on the internet to threaten access to the internet at all in its entirety. Both are bad, but they are not the same.
In Pai’s comments, I also think we see another example of the projection that we see so often in the Trump administration. That is, claiming that others are doing, or plan to do, the very thing of which you are being accused. In response to the criticism, “You plan to censor the internet,” Trump’s FCC Chairman says, in effect, “They started it! They’re already censoring the internet!” The other big example is responding to allegations of collusion with Russia by claiming that Obama, Clinton, and Comey colluded with Russia first. There are many others.
Confusion, Doubt & Ambivalence
In the end, the effect is to sow confusion and doubt about what is really going on. Whatever is going on, it doesn’t seem to be any good. Internet companies and ISPs are all bad! The “regular internet,” as RT says, is broken and we need an “escape.” Such confusion and doubt paves the way for big change though public ambivalence. Perhaps that change will be the repeal of the supposedly “increasingly arbitrary” “regular internet” and its replacement with an “alternative internet” of bundles, fast lanes, and limited access. The point is not to convince the public one way or the other, but to allow powerful actors to do as they will while the public is ambivalent and passive.