Net Neutrality is a New Deal issue

by Astra Taylor on January 9, 2018

First, a sincere thanks to the Crooked Timber gang, especially Henry, for inviting me to join the party. While I’ve been a long time lurker, I’ve never left a comment on this site—but then again, I don’t think I’ve ever left a comment anywhere online outside of Facebook or Twitter. Which is a sure sign that I’ve never blogged before. But what better time to start then at a moment it seems quaint, even antiquated? From what I can tell with a quick Google search, blogging has been dead since 2014. So writing this isn’t exactly like being one of those guys who sit in Washington Square Park writing poetry on their typewriters, but close enough.

I’ll also admit that I did briefly entertain the idea of blogging a few years back, and my basic concept was that I would write about things only after they had totally exited the news cycle, reflecting on whatever was in the headlines 30 days, or maybe even 365 days, prior.

So in honor of that not very good (and thus left to languish) idea for a blog and the fact I’m writing my first post approximately two decades after the word “weblog” was invented, I thought I’d share some recent thoughts about the Internet, specifically net neutrality, and the major blow dealt by FCC chairman Ajit Pai just before the new year.

Last month I was on a panel called “The Internet We Want” organized by the editors of Logic Magazine (a new technology magazine I highly recommend), co-sponsored by the New York City chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America’s technology working group, and featuring a bunch of great folks (Cathy O’Neil, author of Weapons of Math Destruction; Moira Weigel, who wrote an excellent Guardian longread on newly politicized tech workers; Trebor Scholz, a leading proponent of platform cooperativism; and Evan Malmgren, who has investigated the potential of municipal broadband).

One of the big questions guiding the panel, coming from both moderator Ben Tarnoff and the audience, was how activists, educators, and journalists can connect concerns about neutrality to a wider range of social issues and a more expansive, democratic socialist political vision. Though Pai may want us to believe otherwise, net neutrality is not just about being able to post cute animal photos and dance around with purveyors of Pizzagate conspiracy theories (even if that’s what he personally wants to do on the open web). In reality, it’s tied to fundamental problems of distribution—of wealth, influence, opportunity, and freedom of expression.

As FCC commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said in her dissent, “the future of the internet is the future of everything. That is because there is nothing in our commercial, social, and civic lives that has been untouched by its influence or unmoved by its power.”

To be honest, since my book came out, I haven’t been that interested in continuing to write about the Internet. That’s because what drew me to the topic was never an overwhelming interest in technology for technology’s sake, but the way developments hook into larger questions of power, politics, and inequality. Since the panel, however, I’ve been thinking again about the problem of how to integrate tech issues into a wider political analysis and agenda—mainly because it seems a growing number of people are also interested in doing so.

In my opinion the time has come to 1) lift up the idea of an Internet public option (see municipal broadband above, which is one possible example of what this might look like) and 2) recognize the ways in which countless fields we don’t think of as “technological” are being transformed and start addressing these changes strategically (for example, as someone engaged in economic justice issues and debtor organizing, it’s essential that my colleagues and I pay attention to things like the rise of digital redlining, new forms of online consumer scoring, lead generation, algorithmic trading, etcetera so we understand how the ground is shifting under our feet).

Given all this, I feel like talking about net neutrality in isolation makes little sense. Instead, I’m inclined to see the recent Title II roll back as part of a broader attack on an array of longstanding, hard-won, and admittedly imperfect progressive institutions and regulations. Privacy, equal opportunity, consumer, anti-trust, and labor protections are all being eroded or circumvented through a combination of corporate might, well-funded lobbying, and big data. This is hardly a novel observation, but I was struck this weekend when I spoke to a young friend who had spent the afternoon making deliveries through the app Postmates, trudging through frozen New York City streets to deliver a single Starbucks beverage or a random order of fries. Despite the Polar Vortex conditions, when all was said and done his algorithmically determined pay was substantially less than minimum wage.

Seen in this light, the blow against net neutrality is less about the Internet per se than it is an attack on the legacy of the New Deal, one ironically administered by the FCC against itself. (Given the fact that the principle of common carriage or “public callings” at the heart of net neutrality can be traced back to the Middle Ages, maybe there’s some credence that claim that technology is ushering in a state of futuristic feudalism.)

Pai might be a particularly offensive FCC chairman working under a particularly loathsome president, but we have to remember that all was not well before the last election, even if things have taken a remarkable turn for the worse. Long before Trump, private entities and their celebrity CEOs were devising savvy ways to bypass inconvenient rules with only minimum pushback from overextended regulators, all while cozying up to Democratic lawmakers. Remember when FTC staffers tried to get the agency to sue Google for anticompetitive practices a few years back? Obama’s chief, Jon Leibowitz, declined to follow their lead. (Leibowitz recently resurfaced to write an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal saying the net neutrality repeal was no big deal. Unsurprisingly, it turns out he has also worked for Comcast.)

As I prepared for the Logic panel and revisited a few pages of my book, I was shocked that since its publication I had somehow managed to forget the degree to which the Obama administration had dragged its feet on net neutrality, despite the fact they now look like heroes in comparison. Reading through my old notes I recalled how the stage was set in 2009/2010 for a big push on the issue, but the FCC, under leadership of Julius Genachowski, instead punted and went with a weird half measure based on recommendations cooked up by Verizon and Google that basically sold wireless connections down the river. Only when the court struck that incoherent plan down, a new FCC chairman was in place, and years were wasted, did Obama finally make a real play for Title II, which meant the obvious solution wasn’t in place until 2015.  Given the fact the courts needed to respond to the reclassification, the FCC was effectively left only one year, 2016, to do what Title II allows, like implement privacy protections and affordable broadband access in rural areas while tackling various forms of infrastructure discrimination (like when poor neighborhoods don’t get vital upgrades).

As my friend David Segal, who co-founded Demand Progress with the late Aaron Swartz, told me, “If the Obama/Genachowski FCC had implemented Title II net neutrality rules in 2009 or 2010, alongside other regs that were contingent on a Title II foundation—like ISP privacy rules that were eventually implemented in late 2016—it might have locked in these norms and made them less readily repealable, from political and perhaps also legal perspectives.” Indeed, that’s certainly the case with the ISP privacy stuff, which congress was able to effortlessly undo because of the short timeline.

I’m not a telecommunications lawyer, but it’s clear that we lost about five valuable years during which net neutrality regulations could have become normalized, and also that there was plenty of latent authority Obama’s FCC could have used to aggressively pursue the common good that sadly went untapped. (When I spoke with Harold Feld at Public Knowledge about these issues, he made another good point—not only did Obama’s appointees seem reluctant to act boldly when they took office, they also appeared totally unprepared for the determined Tea Party  style resistance their tepid proposals were met with, another miscalculation that should not be repeated).

So what’s the moral of this, my inaugural rant?  Tech issues are not just “tech” issues, and the many problems we face can’t be pinned on one party. And I guess blogging isn’t totally dead, so maybe there’s hope for net neutrality too. Or, better yet—since even robust net neutrality rules still leave so many of the social, economic, and political problems compounded by the Internet untouched—hope for a far more expansive, inspiring, social democratic vision of what our digital future could be.



Anarcissie 01.09.18 at 11:42 pm

I don’t see the destruction of Net Neutrality so much as an attack on the New Deal as an attack on the First Amendment. And as such, it seems to me anyone with anything to say has standing to sue.


faustusnotes 01.10.18 at 2:07 am

I like the claim to make internet infrastructure equal to physical infrastructure, and I think it hints at a broader problem we have in getting any kind of activisim or awareness about internet-related things: Even though it’s been around for 25 years, people still see the internet as not serious. It isn’t treated as real infrastructure and things that happen on the internet are not taken as seriously as things that happen in physical life. This doesn’t just apply to infrastructure: Cyber-bullying, cyber-stalking, revenge porn, all these kinds of issues of social attacks and social interaction online are treated as less serious than the equivalent things done physically. Similarly lack of access to, or poor quality access to, the internet is taken less seriously than e.g. poor telephone or transport access.

I think this is partly a cultural hangover of the time when the internet was a luxury for swapping cat pics, but it’s also reflective of the fact that many of our leaders – in politics and business – are not internet aware, they’re not very connected, and they don’t understand the value of the infrastructure. Framing it in terms of a physical infrastructure policy they can relate to is surely helpful in changing that.


nastywoman 01.10.18 at 5:39 am

– there once was ”hope for a far more expansive, inspiring, social democratic vision of what our digital future could be” –
when we wrote on ”the internet” in all small caps –
but since the Internet has become an a…hole we need to shut it all down and start anew.
-(just joking – and it’s only because I once had to write ” a paper” too about ”the language of the Intertubes”)


Maria 01.10.18 at 11:51 am

Hi Astra, and welcome to CT!

Though I work in tech policy and have written a couple of industry papers on net neutrality, I’ve also been reluctant to get involved in the issue – largely because it’s framed as platforms versus telcos, with the fight being about who gets to own users, the better to milk them of $$ and data. Hard to pick a side.

But what you describe here is a different framing, orthogonal to that, and something that opens up a lot more possibilities.

The other thing that strikes me in your piece is NN (and ISP privacy and more) as an issue where the Obama administration needlessly ploughed along what they thought of as a middle course, and failed to take a historic opportunity to bed in laws and expectations. Largely because they underestimated the opposition, and assumed HRC would maintain that course. Easy to say in hindsight, but I keep seeing areas where Obama under-estimated the seriousness of an issue and failed to adopt structural changes when he could, and now we are left in a worse position that we needed to be.

Susan Hennessy’s recent piece on cyber-war ( argues that Obama under-estimated the seriousness of attacks and punted on using any medium or stronger responses to the DNC attack (more sanctions, publication of information about Putin, overt counter-attacks), basically leaving it for HRC to do. Hennessy’s argument, that international cyber norms would be better established by action and precedent rather than talking, has its limits, for sure. But again, there is just such a strong sense of the Obama administration’s ‘business as usual’ mindset being wholly inadequate in a continued Democrat administration, and a complete fucking disaster in the situation the US actually found itself in.

Maybe it’s just that when you notice something, you see it everywhere – and I’m writing/thinking a lot at the moment about the lost opportunities for structural change by ‘new left’ governments over the last decade, so it’s on my mind – but your piece on NN seems to echo so much of this sense of a lack of courage and commitment allied to a fundamentally weak, milksop programme. And they didn’t even buy us time, they just fed the beast scraps that made it stronger and hate social democrats even more for their weakness.

(I use the term ‘social democrat’ advisedly.)


dax 01.10.18 at 6:54 pm

“In reality, it’s tied to fundamental problems of distribution—of wealth, influence, opportunity, and freedom of expression.”

Perhaps I missed it, or I’m supposed to go elsewhere, but I don’t see any argument that net neutrality is tied to these issues.


ChrisW 01.10.18 at 9:28 pm

Hi Astra. I’m excited that you will be writing at CT. Your post asks such interesting, important questions, framing them in ways that are valuable. I hope you will be exploring them further here in future. It’s the busiest time of the year for me, so that’s all there’s time for now. But hope to do better later.


John Quiggin 01.10.18 at 9:40 pm

Hi Astra and welcome to CT !

I must admit I’ve never fully understood net neutrality, since it seems to involve a mixture of general infrastructure concepts (common carrier principles) and institutional details specific to the US. If anyone has a good explanation of how this concept applies to ISPs in general or (better still) to Australia, I’d be glad to read about it.

I like the idea of an Internet public option. In Australia, after the (recently privatised) dominant telco failed to provide decent broadband, we started a new publicly owned broadband network which has had a fairly bumpy ride for a number of reasons.


Eszter 01.10.18 at 10:03 pm

Welcome, Astra! I appreciate your post and both faustusnotes’ and Maria’s comments. It seems it’s very uncool to be critical of the Obama administration, but you point out important areas where it sure came up short. Generally speaking, neither politicians nor average citizens get the Internet enough to understand why things like this matter, which makes it very difficult to encourage change since people have no idea why they should even care.


nastywoman 01.11.18 at 9:09 am

– but considering the few comments ”blogging” indeed seems to be… pretty dead?

IF there wouldn’t be all these tons of… comments at all kind of ”political” blogs lately.
Like the comment sections of the NYT are so crowded that ”nobody” goes there anymore.

And that has become the downfall of ”the internet” anywhoo – it’s soo much ”stuff” out there – that more and more just go for whats trending.


sanbikinoraion 01.12.18 at 11:06 am


I’m sure you’ve read the analogies, about how a post-NN Internet is like a highway system with tolls; but what these analogies fail to capture is that it’s not consumers who are in the cars driving down the roads. It’s the websites. The consumers are the houses and the offices and the shops. But it’s the websites who have to pay the highway owners to drive to the consumers. So what happens if the highway company also owns, I dunno, YouTube, or Hulu? Are they going to charge Netflix more? Of course they are. And not just Netflix, but everybody.

In the UK, where there are more fixed-line ISPs than you can count, and three separate wireless networks with 90%+ coverage, and where the majority of content is delivered by companies who have no skin in the game, the concept of “Net Neutrality” is a bit irrelevant. If one ISP starts slowing down Netflix in favour of its own streaming service, you’ve got approximately 10,000 other ISPs to pick from. Of course, as the UK mobtelcos get into “quad play” offerings where they are trying to bundle fixed-line voice, broadband, mobile and content into a single package, we too are going to get dragged into this war.

But, as usual, the US is subject to strong monopolies both in the fixed-line and wireless business who have effected regulatory capture — they are strong enough to try and ban municipal “public option” broadband in many cities to eliminate competition. And of course those monopolies are frequently parts of large conglomerates who have their own content empires.

This is reflected in the insane prices that US ISPs and wireless carriers charge for service compared to Europe, and the relatively poor bandwidth available too. The result is, in the US, people having exactly one choice of ISP, who also cares about what packets that their customers receive.

So NN is an issue about free speech, because if Comcast decides they don’t like Crooked Timber, they either ask you to cough up $1000 a month to be a “preferred content provider” and for their customers to be able to visit your site at a reasonable speed — or they just decide that their “straight wood” conservative academic blog is a “better fit” for their customers, and redirect all requests for to

The UK has managed, bless it, to force “unbundling” of a lot of parts of the data chain. BT no longer maintains the fixed-line network, that’s gone out to a separate company called “Openreach”, which purely does physical network provision. BT, Virgin, TalkTalk and other broadband companies simply purchase the same resold bandwidth as all the other ISPs. Similarly, the UK mobile carriers resell bandwidth to a panoply of “MVNO”s who keep the market honest.

So, fundamentally, the requirement for legally-mandated Net Neutrality is due to a failure to regulate or split up monopolies. In countries with well-functioning markets for data provision, NN is not an issue.

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