A week after FCC Chair Ajit Pai outlined his plan to kill net neutrality, the internet providers who support his proposal are spinning the effort harder than a 20-something at SoulCycle. The basic message from companies like Comcast and Verizon is this: “We don’t want to get rid of net neutrality and/or an open internet itself. We merely want to do away with the rules through which net neutrality was established, because reclassifying broadband providers under Title II was bad.”
Theoretically, it’s smart strategy. Who the fuck really knows what Title II is, let alone net neutrality? Jargon like this can be useful, especially when it’s used to distract consumers who don’t have much expertise in arcane policy procedures. After all, most people probably don’t know that Title II is the only thing that gives our current net neutrality policy any teeth.
It’s important to remember, however, that ISPs are also pretty clueless, particularly when it comes to convincing the public to trust them. In the clumsy hands of telecom giants whose terrible reputation precedes them, the plan of attack has turned into a chorus of lame blog posts, bizarre videos, and frantic tweets at random people on the internet. In fact, so far, the fight they’ve put up has been odd, uncertain, and, frankly, lame as hell.
First, a brief primer: The Open Internet Order of 2015 established net neutrality principles in law. It reclassified broadband providers as “common carriers” under Title II of the 1934 Communications Act, giving the FCC greater authority to regulate those providers. The order was, despite what Pai says, hardly the beginning of government-run internet: It didn’t allow the FCC to regulate broadband providers’ prices, and though ir banned paid prioritization, it didn’t even ban the type of network interference that allowed Comcast to extract a payment from Netflix over its speeds.
One of the most important things Pai’s new rules would do is overturn that Title II reclassification, which ISPs would very much like to see happen. Title II, after all, is what gives the FCC the legal authority to enforce net neutrality rules—previous efforts to enact them were struck down by the courts because they didn’t use Title II, thanks to a lawsuit from Verizon.
ISPs have thus decided to focus part of their effort on Title II. Facts aside, they’re sticking with the line that they love the concept of net neutrality—it’s just Title II that’s gotta go.
Verizon, for example, released a sort of slick but mostly bizarre video on the topic last week. The camera starts off behind our host, identified only as Jeremy, who has turned to greet the viewer as if they just wandered into the meeting. Jeremy’s accomplice—Verizon’s general counsel, Craig Silliman—says point blank that the FCC “is not talking about killing the net neutrality rules.” This is an insanely ballsy statement to make, because it’s patently false. He also says that Verizon isn’t asking the FCC to repeal the rules (it is), and that pro-net neutrality groups are just trying to fundraise the issue and “rile up the base.”
Asked about this video, Verizon spokesperson Rich Young said they had had a “good deal of positive feedback on the video,” and that “Verizon has long stood by strong open internet principles. Our position on this issue has not changed.” Okay then!
Comcast, the biggest ISP in the US, is also going real hard on the Title II spin. On April 26th, the day Pai announced his plan to repeal the rules, Comcast put up three whole blog posts: a statement “supporting a free and open internet,” by which it actually meant opposing the current net neutrality rules; another separate post claiming it supports net neutrality, just not Title II; and a third post telling its customers that it doesn’t throttle, block, or slow content, complete with a fancy GIF version of that message.
When we asked the company why it uses the word “don’t” and not “won’t,” Sena Fitzmaurice, the senior vice president for government communications, clarified that Comcast “won’t throttle/block/slow traffic or content.” You’d be forgiven for being a little suspicious about this, seeing as it’s pushing to get rid of the rules that prevent that from happening.
Meanwhile, America’s Most Hated Company has also started using Twitter to spread its message, including promoted tweets:
Using a poor surrogate named Dan, the company is also wading into its mentions to argue with people who don’t quite believe its line.
Comcast Dan is having a bad week.
It’s even getting in real deep—again, with random people on the internet—about what happened with Comcast and Netflix in 2014:
One of Comcast’s promoted tweets is particularly eye-catching, because it takes another approach to the net neutrality fight: congressional action.
Beyond just supporting Pai’s order, Comcast argues that “there is no better way to put in place an enduring set of enforceable Open Internet protections than for Congress to act.” Such a law would avoid the whole Title II issue by establishing explicit statutory authority for the FCC to regulate broadband providers. ISPs love the idea of this happening right now, because with a Republican president and congressional majority, any bill passed would likely be favorable to them.
Yet Florida Senator Bill Nelson, one of the few Democrats who had previously expressed a willingness to compromise on net neutrality legislation, told Gizmodo that “given where things stand today ... conditions aren’t ripe at the moment for negotiations that would lead to real, substantive legislation that could garner bipartisan support.” Without at least some Democrats on board, a net neutrality bill is doomed, because it would need 60 votes to survive a filibuster.
And it’s not just Nelson. A telecom policy strategist told Gizmodo that it would be very difficult for any Democrat to come out in favor of net neutrality legislation, at least at the moment. That’s partly due to the fight over the widely-loathed Republican bill repealing the FCC’s broadband privacy rules—a different issue altogether, but one that has apparently set the tone. Rep. Frank Pallone, the ranking Democratic member on the House Energy & Commerce Committee, which has jurisdiction over net neutrality, told Axios that the privacy rules repeal had “poison[ed] the well,” and later dismissed the idea of net neutrality legislation, saying: “I don’t believe for one minute there will ever be an initiative legislatively. It’s just a false promise.”
A telecom lobbyist agreed with that assessment, saying the privacy rules repeal had “totally backfired.” Similarly, a Democratic aide in Congress told Gizmodo that Comcast’s “desperate plea with Democratic members, their big ask, was say you’re open to [net neutrality] legislation, or at minimum don’t say it’s off the table.” But the company “couldn’t get a single Democrat, even ones who in the past had said they were open to legislation,” to come out in favor of a legislative solution, because the privacy bill was such an unpopular disaster.
It also doesn’t help that Ajit Pai’s speech on net neutrality last week was so aggressively conservative, either—he went after the pro-net neutrality group Free Press and somehow worked the Drudge Report in there. In fact, as ISPs seek the support of Twitter randos and fight an uphill battle for legislation, Ajit Pai is selling his FCC rulemaking plan to conservatives. He has done interviews with Glenn Beck, Lars Larson, Fox Business, The Federalist, Reason, Hugh Hewitt, and, of course, Breitbart. (And, to be fair, PBS NewsHour.) His chief of staff Matthew Berry even tweeted a link to a Rush Limbaugh post expressing his support for Pai’s plan.
As a strategy, it’s a little weird. How many people read The Federalist? Why preach to the free market choir, and associate yourself with people like Glenn Beck? But the strategy makes more sense given what a Democratic Senate aide told us: Pai’s rumored ambitions for running for office might have influenced him. “Clearly he’s made a calculation to make [the net neutrality repeal] more political,” the aide said. “It makes a lot of sense to ingratiate himself with a lot of those corners.”
Then again, maybe it simply ties back to the ISPs’ efforts to get legislation moving on the Hill. The Democratic aide in Congress we spoke to said the ISPs have played up the threat of Pai’s action at the FCC to push a legislative solution. That might mean Democrats have to compromise, but it’s “better than what madman Ajit Pai wants,” they argue. Pai spending his days at FreedomWorks and yukking it up with Lars Larson could sell them on that threat.
Given what we’ve seen so far, it’s safe to say the effort to repeal net neutrality is starting off on odd footing. That doesn’t mean it’s doomed, of course—those who want to kill net neutrality are powerful and well-funded. But if we have no other solace as the wheels of our nightmarish corporate-owned politics turn on and on, at least we can have a good laugh at Jeremy and poor old Comcast Dan.