Toll roads on the information superhighway could be established in the era of President Trump, and critics say that's a terrible thing, especially for Angelenos.
Federal Communications Commission chairman Ajit Pai said this week that the agency planned to abandon net neutrality protections established under the Obama administration. Net neutrality, which prevents internet service providers such as Comcast, AT&T, Verizon and Spectrum from slowing down or speeding up content delivery, "was all about politics," Pai said at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., yesterday
A move in 2015 by the FCC to regulate the internet like a public utility aimed to protect users from increased fees for sites like Netflix and YouTube. Without such net neutrality, internet service providers could charge those content firms extra cash for extra bandwidth they use. And experts fear the customers ultimately would pay. Such a scenario also raises the concern that ISPs would be able to play favorites and block sites or material with which they don't agree.
The end of net neutrality could be especially detrimental to Los Angeles County. The city's median individual income is about $28,000, three out of four residents are nonwhite, and one out of two is Latino. The Pew Research Center last year found that Latinos and African-Americans are twice as likely as whites to be dependent on smartphones to reach the internet — "meaning that they do not have broadband internet access at home," according to the think tank. Critics fear that the increased cost to the consumer as a result of ending net neutrality could make it even harder for low-income people to access the internet.
What's more, last month Pai announced that the Lifeline program, which provided discounted broadband for low-income and senior Americans, would be pared down, with states being allowed to decide which companies would participate. Carmen Scurato, director of policy and legal affairs for L.A.-based nonprofit the National Hispanic Media Coalition, says gutting net neutrality will "limit our capacity as people of color to access the internet."
"For Latinos and other people of color, who have long been misrepresented or underrepresented by traditional media outlets, an open internet is the primary destination for our communities to share our stories in our own words — without being blocked by powerful gatekeepers motivated by profit," Scurato said in a statement. "For all of us, the right to communicate freely online is at risk, and millions will raise their voices against Pai's plan to reverse our collective work to affirm net neutrality and extend the Lifeline Program to a greater number of people."
In a subsequent phone interview, she said, "The internet is what we use to tell our own stories. [This change is] going to silence our voices."
Pai describes the policy shift as one that will get the government off the back of the free market — in apparent disregard for the internet's roots at UCLA as a taxpayer-funded experiment in communication. When other forms of mass communication emerged — namely radio and television — the federal government was quick to regulate it in the name of public access.
"The government has always played a role in the internet," Scurato says. "This is about getting more money out of Netflix, Amazon and YouTube, but it's a cost that can be put on the backs of the American people."
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The Electronic Frontier Foundation is vigorously opposed to ending net neutrality, saying in a statement this week that it would leave "internet users and small businesses completely at the mercy of ISPs."
"Chairman Pai's plan can only be described as the FCC abandoning its obligation to help protect the open internet," EFF's legislative counsel, Ernesto Falcon, said via email. "And he’s using doublespeak to do it, such as suggesting that the net neutrality rules now in place somehow chill free speech.
"EFF bows to no one in our defense of free speech rights, and we know the rules actually protect free speech by protecting our ability to use the internet to speak, organize and innovate."