Internet giants are deciding what content users see and routinely block or discriminate against content they don’t like, which makes them a threat to an open internet, the head of the US communications watchdog says.
Federal Communications Commission (FCC) head Ajit Pai argued on Wednesday against critics who said the White House’s move to reverse the Obama administration’s net neutrality rules would spell the demise of the web.
Referring to so-called ‘edge providers’ – companies such as Google and Amazon that provide online services such as websites or streaming – Pai said: “They might cloak their advocacy in the public interest, but the real interest of these internet giants is in using the regulatory process to cement their dominance in the internet economy.”
He was speaking at a panel on the future of internet freedom hosted by libertarian think tank R Street Institute.
Edge providers, that also include companies such as Netflix and Facebook, normally use the customer’s internet service provider (ISP) to deliver content.
Taking aim at social media platforms, the FCC chief said Silicon Valley companies are already doing this by promoting some viewpoints while suppressing others. “I love Twitter,” said Pai. “But when it comes to a free and open internet, Twitter is part of the problem. The company has a viewpoint and it uses that viewpoint to discriminate.”
The microblogging service “appears to have a double standard when it comes to suspending or de-verifying conservative users’ accounts as opposed to those of liberal users,” he went on, before adding: “Indeed, despite all the talk about the fear that broadband providers could decide what internet content consumers can see, recent experience shows that so-called edge providers are in fact deciding what content they see. These providers routinely block or discriminate against content they don’t like,” he reiterated.
As an example, Pai noted Twitter’s decision to prevent Republican Senate hopeful Marsha Blackburn from advertising a campaign video with controversial remarks about abortion, in which the congresswoman said she had fought Planned Parenthood and helped “stop the sale of baby body parts.”
Pai said “the examples from the past year alone are legion,” adding that they range from “app stores barring the doors to apps from even cigar aficionados because they are perceived to promote tobacco use” to streaming services “restricting videos from the likes of conservative commentator Dennis Prager on subjects he considers ‘important to understanding American values.’”
He also took aim at “algorithms that decide what content you see (or don’t), but aren’t disclosed themselves,” and online platforms “secretly editing certain users’ comments.” Earlier in October, investigative group Project Veritas secretly filmed Earnest Pettie, the Brand and Diversity Curation Lead at YouTube, who said he works “on a team that does provide some human inputs into a lot of the machinery of YouTube.”
In November, Eric Schmidt, the executive chairman of Google’s parent company Alphabet, admitted that the company will “engineer” specific algorithms for RT and Sputnik to make their stories less prominent on the search engine’s news services. “We are working on detecting and de-ranking those kinds of sites – it’s basically RT and Sputnik,” Schmidt said at the Halifax International Security Forum in Canada.
Pai distinguished between edge and broadband providers. Many of the latter – including AT&T, Comcast, and Verizon – favored the repeal of Obama’s net neutrality rules which they say will allow the internet to return to the free market environment.
On the other hand, services such as Twitter, Google, and Facebook have favored the existing rules. “Edge providers,” Pal asserted, “are a much bigger actual threat to an open internet than broadband providers, especially when it comes to discrimination on the basis of viewpoint.”
The FCC chairman vowed to lift net neutrality protections adopted by the watchdog under the Obama administration. According to these rules, broadband service providers like AT&T and Verizon are prohibited from cornering segments of the internet and charging extra fees. For example, instead of standard broadband speed, ISPs could soon offer variations on quality, and charge customers accordingly.
The FCC position is that current legislation limits the freedom of internet companies, arguing that red tape is hampering investment in online service.