The case for nationalizing the internet

fcc-property-of-verizon

Activists project “Property of Verizon” on the face of the FCC building in Washington, D.C.

On Thursday, the Federal Communications Commission will vote on whether or not it wants to repeal net neutrality, an Obama-era regulation that requires internet service providers to treat all content on the internet indiscriminately. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, a former lawyer for Verizon who joked about being the company’s puppet, argues that repeal of net neutrality is in better keeping with free market principles. Almost everyone else says repealing net neutrality is nothing more than a corporate power grab.

Supporters of net neutrality argue that the regulation keeps the internet open and free, while repeal of the regulation would allow cable companies unprecedented control over the content Americans can see. This could have devastating impacts on the ability of people to organize socially and politically. It would also allow them to bundle the internet, similar to how cable companies bundle TV – instead of a sports package, a news package, and a movie package, consumers would pay separately for social media, YouTube, and gaming, for instance.

The conversation has become a depressingly familiar one in modern America. On one side is the argument that corporations should be allowed to do whatever they want; on the other side are pleas for basic, common-sense regulation. But net neutrality provides a particularly interesting insight into how Americans really feel about government protections. Opposition to Pai’s agenda is bipartisan. Even President Trump’s base, those on the furthest-right of the political spectrum, have defended net neutrality – perhaps fearing that without it, they couldn’t troll or share their alt-right views as efficiently.

But even net neutrality’s most passionate defenders often don’t go far enough. What we ought to be discussing is not whether to turn over more of the internet to private corporations, but returning the internet to the people who funded its invention and development: the American taxpayer. Ajit Pai and Donald Trump’s radical corporatist agenda should be countered by an equally radical alternative that calls for nationalization of the internet.

Too often the left finds itself playing defense against far-right corporatism. Trump does all he can to smash the Environmental Protection Agency, and the left ends up just trying to keep a few shreds of protected land intact. The GOP tries to repeal Obamacare, and the left passionately defends it – even though it is not the guarantee of health coverage we ultimately need. As with these issues, Trump and his corporatist cabal are moving the goalposts ever further rightward. Eventually we may have to just be grateful to check our email.

People use the internet to stay in touch with far-away relatives, find employment, organize politically, plan events, entertain themselves, and stay informed. It is fundamental to our way of life. The building blocks of both internet and computer technology have their origins in the state sector. Without public investments, these technologies would likely never have been made workable. By rights, the internet belongs to the American people. It is not for corporations to repackage and sell back to us.

Exactly how nationalized internet should look is up to engineers, economists, and policy experts to figure out. Of course it should still abide by the existing net neutrality rules. We must also strive for greater access – tens of millions of Americans are still without internet. But the fate of so vital a tool must not be left in the hands of for-profit corporate interests, their lobbyists, or the stooges they’ve installed in the US government.

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