Most talk about President-elect Donald Trump’s technology policies — or “the cyber,” as he calls them — has revolved around his takes on Russia’s hacking of the Democratic National Committee.
However, there’s another key aspect of Trump tech policy that shouldn’t be overlooked: Net neutrality.
After being appointed as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission by President Obama, Tom Wheeler enacted a set of reforms to United States telecommunications policy that reclassified internet service providers as common carriers, thus allowing him to implement network neutrality restrictions on their activities.
What is net neutrality? It’s basically the principle that all data sent across the web should be delivered on a first-come, first-serve basis.
That means, for instance, that if you’re streaming Netflix and your neighbor is streaming Hulu, there should be no difference in how your local ISP treats video from each service. Presuming that both services are up and running properly, data from Netflix should be sent to your house at the same speed at data from Hulu gets sent to your neighbor’s house.
This is important because it creates a level competitive playing field for businesses on the web. With net neutrality, Comcast isn’t allowed to cut a deal with Netflix to ensure that its videos take priority over Hulu videos during peak traffic hours, which means both services will be treated equally.
ISPs have traditionally opposed this rule because they want to make tiered services in which big-name companies can pay them extra money in exchange for preferential treatment for their data. Major tech companies including Amazon, Netflix and Google have traditionally supported net neutrality, because they don’t want ISPs to be given the power to charge needless tolls to access their customers.
Trump’s incoming administration plans to undo the Obama FCC’s net neutrality restrictions — in fact, Republican commissioner Ajit Pai has even crowed that net neutrality’s days are “numbered” with Trump in charge.
If this happens, ISPs will try to offer established players special high-speed tiers that will help them maintain a permanent advantage over rivals — thus harming any upstart company that doesn’t yet have the deep pockets to pay ISP tolls.
This may not be the only way that the Trump administration will make your service suck even worse, either. By the looks of things, telecom lobbyists are already buttering up the administration to approve massive mergers such as AT&T and Time Warner, as well as Sprint and T-Mobile.
Sprint parent company SoftBank’s Trump-boosting post-election announcement about investing in the United States was widely seen as a bid to get on the president-elect’s good side to make him see a prospective merger with T-Mobile more favorably.
And despite his stated opposition to the proposed AT&T-Time Warner merger on the campaign trail, he’s already appointed Joshua Wright — a longtime proponent of massive corporate mergers — as a key antitrust adviser.
This is important because ISPs would have trouble definitively breaking net neutrality if there were a competitive landscape for internet services. At the moment, competition for high-speed internet in the United States is very weak, and any further mergers will only make it weaker.
The Obama FCC killed potentially disastrous mergers between AT&T and T-Mobile, and between Comcast and Time Warner Cable. If a Trump administration signs off on those mergers with meager promises of “job creation” that Trump can boast about on his Twitter account, the internet in the United States worse off than ever before.