Ajit Pai Coddles Big Telecom, Demonizes Silicon Valley
from the inconsistency-ahoy dept
To be very clear there’s no shortage of legitimate criticism aimed at giants like Facebook and Google for their inconsistent policies, repeated privacy snafus, and incessantly-incompetent public relations skills.
That said, a large chunk of the push to “do something” about Google, Facebook and Twitter’s supposed assault on free speech is also little more than wet nonsense driven by people who don’t understand how the internet or First Amendment work. And a lot of the recent breathless hyperventilation in DC and vilification of “big tech” is being driven by the telecom sector, which has spent years demanding that their broken and uncompetitive monopoly market be mindlessly deregulated, while the healthier, more competitive online content and ad space face onerous new regulations.
We’ve discussed at length how the telecom industry has grown bored with the slow, steady profit made from upgrading and running broadband networks, and has shifted its focus toward the sexier realm of online advertising. Granted, when large ISPs try to directly compete in that space they tend to fall flat on their faces, since running government-pampered monopolies has dulled their innovative and competitive edge. As a result, the Comcast/AT&T/Verizon version of “competition” usually involves two things they’re actually good at: cheating by distorting the playing field (aka net neutrality violations) and lobbying.
The motivation here (money) isn’t really mysterious. Cable lobbyists routinely call for regulation of companies they’re trying to compete with in the online ad space, and loyal policymakers and lawmakers are frequently happy to oblige to keep campaign contributions flowing. Telecom executives like to pretend this is just fair play, given Netflix and Google’s (long since dead) support of net neutrality. The difference: ISPs really were trying to use their broadband monopolies to harm competitors, and Google and Netflix’s arguments were largely being made in good faith.
There’s no good faith ISP arguments occurring here. ISPs don’t actually care about privacy, transparency, or your right to spread hate on Twitter. And ISP BFFs like Ajit Pai have long demonized Silicon Valley giants by using straight up nonsense in order to make their argument (like the time he tried to claim a run of the mill Netflix CDN was a network neutrality violation). All while turning a blind eye to ample problems in the telecom sector.
This inconsistency was again on proud display this week in a post by Pai over at Medium ahead of this week’s Silicon Valley hearings. In it, Pai laments all manner of problems with Silicon Valley giants, from their disdain for privacy, to a lack of total transparency. You’ll notice that most of the concerns Pai expresses were comically-absent as he dismantled popular net neutrality (and ISP transparency) protections last fall:
“Are these tech giants running impartial digital platforms over which they don?t exercise editorial judgment when it comes to content? Or do they in fact decide what speech is allowed and what is not and discriminate based on ideology and/or political affiliation? And again, going back to the first point: where is the transparency?”
Pai’s sudden interest in transparency is downright adorable. But you’d have to be blind not to notice how the things Pai demonizes Silicon Valley for pale in comparison to many of the things we’ve seen in the telecom sector. You’d also have to be blind not to notice how Pai’s arguments perfectly mirror the telecom industry lobbying talking points accidentally leaked to us last week by US Telecom. Surely that’s only coincidental, right?
From ISPs efforts to charge customers more for privacy to using bullshit fees to jack up your bill, Pai never bats an eyelash when AT&T or Comcast engages in all manner of bad behavior. Yet watch how Pai hyperventilates when talking about Google, Facebook, and Twitter doing things notably less terrible or, as we saw with the recent bogus Twitter shadowbanning controversy, completely made up.
Pai spent the last five years insisting that ISPs shouldn’t face “burdensome regulations,” despite the fact ISPs like Comcast operate natural monopolies. Yet here he is, advocating for new regulatory restrictions to be foisted upon ISP competitors who actually do face competition:
“The public deserves to know more about how these companies operate. And we need to seriously think about whether the time has come for these companies to abide by new transparency obligations. After all, just as is the case with respect to broadband providers, consumers need accurate information in order to make educated choices about whether and how to use these tech giants? platforms.”
Part of the problem is that this conversation on what to do about Facebook, Google and Twitter has been infected by our idiotic need to apply partisanship to fucking everything, regardless of whether it makes intellectual sense. Net neutrality, for example, has long been played up as a “partisan” issue by ISPs to sow dissent and derail consensus, despite the fact that an overwhelming bipartisan majority of Americans support it.
Here too, ISPs are using baseless, inconsistent, and inflammatory rhetoric to enflame ideological divides and censorship fears with an eye on hampering competitors and encouraging partisan gridlock. In reality, telecom operators don’t exclusively inhabit “the right,” and Google, Facebook, and Twitter aren’t the exclusive dominion of “the left.” They’re comprised of employees across vast swaths of the ideological spectrum, who, if you actually sit down and talk to them, tend to agree more than they disagree.
But viewing technology debates through a partisan lens is encouraged by those eager to keep the public bickering–instead of developing real solutions to real problems. When the partisan labels come out, the brain often turns off. And there’s entire industries happily cashing in on that fact to thwart consensus and meaningful change. There’s also an ocean of lawmakers and politicians like Pai more than happy to unabashedly-parrot those efforts on demand, knowing full well that loyalty now means either a lucrative lobbying job or posh think tank gig down the road.
There’s absolutely a legitimate conversation to be had here in terms of what to do about privacy and speech in the Facebook and Twitter era. And that may or may not involve crafting new regulations. But it might be nice if people wised up to the fact that a huge swath of the conversation is being dictated not by parties acting in good faith with a genuine eye on valid solutions, but by telecom monopolies eager to pee in the discourse pool simply to fatten their wallets.