In 2003, Columbia Law Professor Tim Wu coined the phrase “net neutrality,” stating that Internet service providers should treat all data equally, without charging discriminant prices based on web traffic or wealth. In 2010, The FCC established a set of regulations meant to maintain net neutrality. Particularly, these new rules prohibited ISP’s them from charging websites money to make access to their sites faster, and from charging everyday people extra money to visit Youtube. In theory, they were good regulations. Legally, however, they were invalid, and on Tuesday, January 14th, a Federal Court struck them downing, saying that the FCC, according to current laws, has no right to enforce such limits. Now, we are facing an Internet with in which those who connect us with one another no longer need to hold each of us in equal esteem, in which there are fewer rules, and, ironically, far greater limitations.
The negative implications of this law, I would like to think, are pretty self-evident. For all the Internet’s flaws, it is a fundamentally democratic form of education, communication, and connection for people the world over. The Internet helps kids in rural communities look up how to spell words like “obfuscate.” It allows a son in Oregon to keep in touch with his father in Florida. It allows disparate people to find hope in one another, and shared interest, and political will and social unity. Its impact is so profound that any discussion of it, really, is trite. In short, the Internet does a lot of good. This ruling, however, could take away much of that. Sites like Youtube, which have been integral in illuminating human rights violations, providing educational materials, and democratizing entertainment and culture, could be forced to pay more to provide the same level of service. Browsers, meanwhile, could be forced to pay to access content. Even a site like this one, whose very purpose and method are centered on net neutrality, would become essentially irrelevant. Though I have faith that people believe in what we are doing here, we all know that no one is about to wait an hour to read a single article here or anywhere. What, then, is to become of our intellectual products? Will they go back to print, where money is drying up at a dizzying pace, and availability to consumers is diminishing with every passing month? Will it stay online and watch as they find themselves growingly incapable of producing content, or cultivating an audience? Will they simply disappear altogether?
Now, a future like this is not inevitable. Few sites turn a sizeable profit, let alone enough of one to pay exorbitant rates for faster speeds. ISP’s may find that it is not profitable to affect net neutrality drastically. Perhaps they will simply charge Netflix slightly more money and leave it at that. Perhaps there will even be a bit of collusion, some kind of organized protest to changes in rates. On the other hand, though, some sites may bank on their ability to elbow out other competitors through such discriminatory services as a path to profitability. They might seize the opportunity to bury other sites. Predicting firms’ behavior is challenging, especially given that these rules will impact far more than a single industry or market.
Regardless of the actual impact of the ruling, however, this decision is part of a concerning trend. More and more, our courts and governments—and I suppose, in a way, we ourselves—have become comfortable with the growing power of private firms in American life. We take (understandable) issue with the NSA’s programs of domestic surveillance, yet we do not take issue with the ways in which Google or Facebook uses our private data. Many of us support the proliferation of charter schools more than we do massive investment in and reformation of our public schools. Others of us declare the need to remove the shackles from Wall Street and the economy at large, emphasizing the importance of letting markets do what markets do, and firms what firms do. We talk about privatizing social security, about school vouchers. We entrust more and more of our national defense to private contractors, be they intelligence workers, weapons manufacturers, or mercenaries. Meanwhile, private interests have the ear of our Congress, along with an ability to dump money into elections across the country without hesitation. And where has that left us so far? On every side we have companies with billions of dollars in holdings and profits that pay few taxes to the American government, and underpay their employees so that the government will pick up the slack through social programs, and thus allow their profit margins to balloon.
Capitalism is a critical system of organization to American life. It is the spark of innovation; it provides millions with purpose and fulfilling employment. Without it we could not live in the material comfort that we do. We could never have the kind of social programs that we have. But even Milton Freedman acknowledged that there had to be rules, that the role of government was to establish those rules and maintain fairness. This notion necessitates that the government hold supremacy over the private sector, even if deregulating. Right now, though, we are upending that relationship. We are putting every facet of our society in the hands of private entities, to the point that the Congress listens more to private interests than it does to those who put them in office in the first place.
There is no way of discussing this topic without being an alarmist. Any future I outline will inevitably be exaggerated. If I am allowed to let my imagination wander for a moment, though, I would like to outline a worst-case scenario of what comes at the end of the road we are currently heading down. If private entities can move their taxes between nations so as to avoid paying any, the tax bases of the countries within which the companies operate will diminish. As these private entities begin to span more and more countries, in fact, we will find that governments generally will have less and less power over their actions. Without the government oversight, companies will buy one another, and conglomerate. Their profits, meanwhile, will expand as they do so, especially given the tax rates that they will be paying. All of this, in the end, will result in the weakening of the nation-state. Through the use of capital, private entities will continue to have a disproportionate influence over the governments of the world. Nations will fear losing jobs and votes if they try and curb the growing power and influence of these firms, which, along with the fear of losing campaign donations, will prevent governments from trying to reverse this trend. Or, at least that will be true of our country.
I know it seems silly—this is, admittedly, a worst-case, imagined scenario. But what happens when a company becomes worth a trillion dollars? What happens when a company has more loose capital than many nations have dollar value in GDP? Really, all we are doing in asking the private sector to supersede the government, in asking the private to do what the public should, is trading one taskmaster for another. A world free from government is not a world free, and yet somehow that is exactly what we have told ourselves. We have so thoroughly convinced ourselves that the government is Big Brother incarnate, that “free markets” can solve everything, that we have made it our goal to surrender ourselves entirely to a world of corporatism. And in doing so we are lying to ourselves. Our “free markets” are not free. They are playgrounds for crony capitalists. For all our talk of not picking winners and losers, that is exactly what we do when we allow unbridled spending on elections through super PAC’s, when we allow private industries to bury their competition or outpace lawsuits by burning through cash, and it is all that we do in having a tax system that lets the wealthy—be they individuals or corporations– pay little as the nation and the middle class drown in debt.
I am sure that many will find me naïve for saying this, or will think that I do not pay enough attention to the historical context in which or purpose with which the founding fathers established the American government, but I would much rather entrust the nation to a government than to industry. At least with a government we have elections. We have checks and balances. We have a court system, as much as it may often make decisions that some of us disagree with. We have a bureaucracy that prevents the mass coordination of governmental infrastructure. Most importantly, in the government there is an obligation to serve. Money, power, respect, position, fulfillment of vanity—these things are all available to those who make their way through the ranks of government, at least in some way. But at the end of the day the point of the government is to serve the people. The government does not care about turning a profit. It cares about providing clean water to people and keeping schools open, though it is easy to forget when seeing how our Congress behaves.
A private entity has no such sense of duty, though I certainly do not want to gloss over a lot of the good that private entities do philanthropically, and societally. Though a firm’s purpose is to produce something or provide a service, our way of measuring the extent to which a firm does this is flawed, at least in so far as it pertains to a private firm’s ability to serve a greater societal good. After all, we measure success through profit. As a result, we create a profit motive. We can talk all we want about corporate citizenship, but at the end of the day, companies are trying to make as much money as possible, so that those who run them can take home as much money as possible, and they can say that they are producing successfully. If, say, Walmart were truly a good corporate citizen, it would probably raise wages rather than holding food drives for their employees, as they did during the most recent holiday season. Steel, automobile, and gas and oil companies would probably not stamp out climate change legislation if they had broader societal good in mind. (In fact, it is interesting that, in blaming Congress for being greedy and wallet obsessed, we do not turn our attention to preventing the most rich and powerful industries in this country from hijacking the Congress for its own benefits).
In short, in a world where the private holds power over the public, benevolence only comes when it is profitable. Safety regulations only come when they undercut profits, or the workers strike. But how can the workers strike if the government doesn’t come to their aid, if the company hires new workers who will work for less, if the company they strike against is one of only few in a given industry? How can consumers ask for better working conditions or better products if they can only choose between two or three products in the first place, and their makers collude? The deregulation of all things private only leads to an even more limited form of capitalism than exists now, one in which companies answer to no one, in which they can drop standards and ethics, and monopolize, and thus depriving the average citizen of choice and diversity in employment, goods and services, and even culture. We have already seen that play out in this country. We have had the “Gilded Age.” We do not need another.
Stopping this trend is as much about protecting capitalism as it is about preserving the rights and freedoms of American citizens. It is about working towards a world in which people of all walks of life have access to the capital and education they need to start businesses and become successful, working contributors to society. Government regulation in some degree is important in protecting fair and equitable markets, in stopping monopolization. It is critical to the protection of art and culture and information and education. Whether it is net neutrality, or unbridled spending on elections, or an inequitable tax code, or any other kind of public policy that makes our government subservient to private interests, we have to fight the private sector’s attempts to wrench itself away from the law. This nation, above all else, is supposed to be about equality before the law, and that can never exist if there are entities above it.
And yet, this issue isn’t just a matter of public will. Net neutrality was not struck down because we did not want those rules in place. Rather, the court had to make a ruling based on existent laws and precedents, none of which allowed the rules and regulations to stand. The issue, then, is really that our laws cannot keep pace with technology. The same is true, even, of a case like Citizens United. “Corporations are people” because we had yet to legislate anything to say that they are not. The private sector inevitably changes faster than the government does. It files lawsuits more frequently than the government does. And I’m not really sure what the solution is to that. Do we try and limit private influence in the Congress? Do we reorganize voting districts to decrease bipartisanship? Do we abandon our love for the Constitution as it stands, decide that we love constitutional law more than the Constitution itself, and open ourselves up to more rapid change, and flexible interpretations of older laws? I really do not know.
I do know, however, that in the face of these rulings, we can choose not to merely accept the road down which our country is heading. We need not leave the world to private entities that can transcend nation states, that can ignore the public good, and use its capital and influence to its own advantages. We do not need to choose between Big Brothers. There is a middle ground, and we must reach it. And that starts with rejecting our sacrifice of the public to the private. We must foster industry, but we cannot do so at the expense of our government. All people deserve a say. They deserve a world in which the structures of power fight for and care about them in equal measure, and we must be sure to place power in the hands of those who will help us make that world.