The Biggest Lies We Heard About Net Neutrality This Week

House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., surrounded by reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington on July 28, 2017.
Photo: J. Scott Applewhite / AP

“Consumer protection” isn’t a phrase you’ll find on the resume of a person who devises dishonest, meaningless soundbites like, “Net neutrality is about government takeover of the internet.” But most Washington lawmakers don’t really care what a soundbite means or whether it’s they’re true. It just needs to be catchy, maybe inspire a little fear and distrust in the other guy.

If they say it loud enough, whoever wrote it might even write them an extra fat check.

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What we witnessed this week as Democrats advanced legislation to restore the 2015 Open Internet Order—rules that, for the first time, enacted real net neutrality protections across the U.S.—were some of the worst bad-faith arguments yet uttered by Republicans; among them, that if the rules were again the same as they were in 2016, “the government” would soon seize control of private networks and online businesses.

Despite it being totally against the law, it would also lead to a new federal tax on virtually everyone who owns a computer, Republicans claimed ahead of the bill’s passage in the House Chamber.

“Will this bill provide the authority for a government takeover and management of private networks? We think it could,” said Rep. Greg Walden, displaying not a hint of shame on his face, despite having just said the crazy, incredibly false thing in front of dozens of colleagues and tens of thousands of Americans at home. “Will this bill allow government taxation of the internet? It could,” he said.

The rules Walden favors—which are entirely unenforceable and contain numerous loopholes through ISPs can screw over consumers—would, conversely, not lead to a “government takeover of the internet by Washington bureaucrats,” he claimed.

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“I rise in opposition to this bill that would create a government takeover of the internet,” Republican House Whip Steve Scalise chimed in moments later.

“I really believe,” Rep. Bob Latta said assuredly, “that the American people don’t want to have a takeover of the internet.” He then repeated the phrase “takeover by the government of the internet,” two minutes later (for any C-SPAN viewers who tuned in late for the debate).

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“This is a wholly manufactured scare tactic,” says Matt Wood, former editor-in-chief of the Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review, who now serves as vice president of policy at Free Press, a nonprofit that aims to halt media consolidation and preserve a free and open internet.

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“I would love for anyone to have Mr. Walden point to the government takeover language, like where they think that power even resides in the text,” he said, referring to the FCC’s Open Internet Order, which was passed in the 2015 and upheld by a federal appeals court the following year. “I don’t think they could even begin to give you a straight-faced answer. You know, I don’t think they care either. It’s just totally unmoored from the text or from the reality we’ve all experienced.”

Notably, during the two years that net neutrality was considered law of the land, the government did not seize control of the internet. (Nor will it ever get around to accomplishing that—the suggestion is patently absurd.)

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During the effort to abort net neutrality in 2017, Republicans worked tirelessly to the blur the definition of what constitutes “the internet,” by suggesting that companies such as AT&T and Comcast are the internet, ignoring the rest of the global network. Internet service providers merely exist to connect customers to that broader network, but Republicans are arguing against making them follow net neutrality rules through scaremongering with all their “government takeover” talk.

Your Lyft driver is not your destination, though they are subject to regulations designed to protect their riders and the streets on which they drive: the rules of the road; government-mandated vehicle insurance; anti-discrimination statutes; rules against congesting airport pick-up lanes; pages and pages of rules and ordinances that vary state to state so voluminous it’s nearly impossible for a single person to retain.

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No one refers to these myriad restrictions as a “government takeover of the road.” Anyone who did would be considered obnoxious and promptly told to fuck off.

Another soundbite echoed repeatedly in the House chamber was that the law under which Democrats seek to grant the FCC power to keep internet-access providers in check—the Communications Act—was written in the 1930s; the implication here being that the statute is just a relic of an era when most Americans still shit in outhouses and heated their bathwater over a wood-burning stove.

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“Instead of working toward 21st-century solutions to moderate 21st-century high-tech companies,” said Rep. Larry Bucshon, “they opted for an antiquated regulatory scheme designed for the monopoly telephone carriers of the 1930s.”

Of course, the Communications Act has been amended and modernized by many acts of Congress, including most notably, the Telecommunications Act of 1996. (Not to mention the Patriot Act of 2001 and the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act of 1994.)

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Ironically, the regulations imposed on telephone companies under Title II of the Communications Act didn’t lead to the death of the private telecommunications industry. Phone service remains its biggest source of revenue. AT&T, which traces it’s corporate lineage back to Alexander Graham Bell, the father of the telephone, is among the top 10 most wealthy companies in the United States and, raked in $170 billion last year, and is one of a handful of companies leading the charge to develop the next generation of mobile broadband technology.

“I guess I missed the big government takeover of the phone networks,” Wood jokes.

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While Walden carried on Tuesday, characterizing the efforts to reinstate the 2015 net neutrality rules as antiquated or tyrannical overreach, he had other industry-crafted lies in his pocket, too. “Some argue,” he said, “that during that period investment in broadband build-out actually declined.”

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The notion that broadband investment declined under the Open Internet Order, or that it increased under its successor, the Restoring Internet Freedom Act—the latter having repealed the former thanks to the FCC’s December 2017 vote—would be nonsensical even if it were true, which it isn’t. There are, however, plenty of ways to skew the numbers to make it seem that way.

One favored method is to combine the broadband investment figures of multiple companies without disclosing which ones are being totaled, a tactic used today by the FCC’s GOP majority. What these aggregated figures don’t take into account is that timetables for massive broadband network expansion projects don’t revolve around the government’s tedious, never-ending policy debates.

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Offering a two-year investment snapshot of the industry as a whole is a clever way to conceal the fact that some companies started spending less money while others started spending more. “If AT&T drops its investment by a lot, and everyone else is increasing, that could skew the total. And we’ve seen evidence of that,” says Wood. “The real point is that when AT&T invested less temporarily in 2015, it wasn’t because of some huge regulatory impact.”

In 2012, AT&T announced a three-year build-out, saying it would spend approximately $14 billion expanding its fiber networks. But even as AT&T slowed down its capital investments in 2015, after spending billions of dollars on a project mapped out years in advance, Comcast’s spending soared from $7.2 billion to $8.1 billion months after the FCC net neutrality rules went into effect. By the end of the following year, it had spent $9.2 billion.

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But the argument that we can even use dollar amounts to measure whether a certain set of government regulations is helping or hindering broadband development is total bullshit. Companies are always looking for ways to spend less while doing more. It’s called being efficient.

In a quarterly earnings call a few years ago, AT&T chairman Randal Stephenson noted, for example, that the company was looking at fiber options, such as backhaul facilities, for its 5G deployment. AT&T had examined all of its options, he said, and decided “it’s cheaper to buy or build.” The point being, just because the books suggest a company ended up spending less money, it doesn’t mean “investment is down.”

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“It’s not the money we care about,” said Wood. “It’s the coverage.”

“There’s really a lot of magical thinking going on. You know, [FCC Chairman] Ajit Pai is responsible for every investment that happened the moment he was named chair. when we say, ‘well there were improvements happening in 2015 and 2016,’ they say, ‘Well those were in the pipeline for years.’ So, which is it?” Woods said. “Are the decision being made years in advance with careful investment planning by the ISPs? Or are they things that with the flip of a switch, or the flick of a voting lever, broadband investment rockets back up?”

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“I don’t know how much people care about being consistent or saying stuff that’s true when they’re so dug in on a position,” he adds. “But I think they know it’s nonsense and they’re being asked to peddle it by the powers that be and party leadership and the cable companies, who also know it’s nonsense.”

“They know it’s ridiculous and yet, there they go.”

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Dell Cameron

Privacy, security, tech policy | Got a tip? Email: dell@gizmodo.com | Send me encrypted texts using Signal: (202)556-0846

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