November 22, 2017

MEGAN MCARDLE: The Internet Had Already Lost Its Neutrality: Even while the FCC was more strictly regulating, a few powerful companies took control of what we see and don’t.

The internet will be filled today with denunciations of this move, threats of a dark future in which our access to content will be controlled by a few powerful companies. And sure, that may happen. But in fact, it may already have happened, led not by ISPs, but by the very companies that were fighting so hard for net neutrality.

Consider what happened to the Daily Stormer, the neo-Nazi publication, after Charlottesville. One by one, hosting companies refused to permit its content on their servers. The group was forced to effectively flee the country, and then other countries, too, shut it down.

Now of course, these are not nice people. Their website espoused vile hate. But the fact remains that what they were publishing was not illegal, merely immoral, and their immoral speech was effectively shut down by a small number of private companies who decided to exercise their considerable control over what we’re allowed to read. And what is to stop them from expanding this decision to other categories, forcing the rest of us to conform to Silicon Valley’s idea of what it is moral and right for us to see?

Fifteen years ago, when I started blogging, it was common to hear that “the internet interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.” You don’t hear that so often anymore, because it’s not true. China has proven very effective at censoring the internet, and as market power has consolidated in the tech industry, so have private firms.

Meanwhile, our experience of the internet is increasingly controlled by a handful of firms, most especially Google and Facebook. The argument for regulating these companies as public utilities is arguably at least as strong as the argument for thus regulating ISPs, and very possibly much stronger; while cable monopolies may have local dominance, none of them has the ability that Google and Facebook have to unilaterally shape what Americans see, hear, and read.

In other words, we already live in the walled garden that activists worry about, and the walls are getting higher every day. Is this a problem? I think it is.

I do, too.

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