There are many misleading, questionable, and frankly just plain bad arguments against net neutrality out there these days, but a former FCC commissioner may have outdone them all for pure inanity, somehow blaming the push for an open internet for global terrorism.
That’s not us reading into the words of one-time FCC member Harold Furchtgott-Roth. His opinion piece for Forbes is actually titled “To reduce terrorism, repeal network neutrality.”
Furchtgott-Roth isn’t just a roving think tank consultant of the type endemic to D.C.; he served as an FCC commissioner from 1997 to 2001 and was one of the Congressional staffers who helped shape the Telecommunications Act of 1996 prior to that.
The piece was published on May 24, two days after a suicide bomber killed 23 and injured 116 in an explosion at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, England, on May 22.
“A sensible question,” Furchtgott-Roth writes, “is why civilized governments do not seek to deprive terrorists of unfettered access to the internet.”
“Sadly,” he continues, “here in America, limiting access to the Internet would be illegal under the euphemistic term ‘network neutrality,’ the two-year-old experiment in federal regulation of the Internet.”
This argument is completely wrong in several different ways. For one thing, net neutrality has nothing to do with providing any particular specific individual access to the internet, but rather, has to do with requiring providers to give users the content they request without preferential interference.
And in fact, in the U.S., persons who are convicted of crimes do often have their right to access the Internet severely curtailed. Internet use in prisons is generally banned, and internet use bans are not uncommon as a probation term for those who were convicted of internet-related crimes.
“Under network neutrality, broadband companies — such as AT&T, Charter, Comcast, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon — are prohibited from discriminating against any lawful websites or content,” Furchtgott-Roth writes. This part is, in fact, completely true. That is the entire point of net neutrality: You ask for content, and your ISP lets you have it without messing with it.
But Furchtgott-Roth is mad that objectionable content is not automatically considered unlawful content and therefore legally blockable.
“There is no clear distinction between lawful and unlawful websites and content,” he writes. “The net result is a broadband company could and likely would be sued for blocking websites housing information about recruitment and organization for ISIS, Al Qaeda, the Ku Klux Klan, or other terrorist groups.”
What Furchtgott-Roth is ultimately arguing in favor of is granting ISPs permission to engage in content curation and blanket censorship on behalf of their users — and he blames net neutrality for ISPs lack of ability to do so now.
Instead, he says, “A better approach would be to allow consumer preferences and competitive market forces for ISPs to fight against terrorism.” He wants “Different ISPs to compete on the basis of their degree of ‘anti-terrorist’ efforts.”
In fact, a private company already can already form to offer limited internet services, not subject to Title II common carriage laws, restricting whatever kind of content it wants.
That came up in 2015, during the oral arguments in federal court when the FCC was defending its Open Internet Rule against lawsuits from industry and lobbyists.
FCC associate general counsel Jacob Lewis argued during the hearing that a carrier that existed specifically on the basis of filtering the internet before bringing it to consumers is not a mass communications broadband ISP, because it’s selling a different service and experience entirely and consumers are made aware of that going in. So an “anti-terrorist” internet service could launch tomorrow, filtering out every mention of the word “bomb” on the entire internet, and would be permitted to do so under existing law.
Furchtgott-Roth proposes that these anti-terrorist ISPs block known terrorism-related material and information and “coordinate with law enforcement officials to block or to limit access to known or suspected terrorists.”
He notes that, “some major ISPs might not be interested in having an anti-terrorist campaign,” but thinks, “all would likely be willing to resell their service to a third party with practically any marketing approach, including anti-terrorist.”
But while third-party reselling does exist in mobile — many small carriers use networks built and owned by Verizon or AT&T — it largely does not happen on U.S. wired broadband connections. Comcast is not going to resell Comcast access to a third-party for its own limited-use network. Nor is Charter. If the major cable ISPs were open to third-party reselling, we wouldn’t find ourselves with an utter dearth of competition in most markets today.
And that, of course, is aside from the problem of trusting your ISP to be able to successfully tell the difference between “terrorist” and “researcher,” or even between “good” and “bad” based merely on content traffic requests made from a device. Which, frankly, most people are unlikely to trust — or want — their ISP to do.