President-elect Donald Trump’s recent meeting with the heads of big U.S. tech firms touched on many important topics, from immigration and tax reform to maternity leave. But one important issue affecting American consumers and digital publishers, net neutrality, was either not discussed or was so far down the list of priorities that no details were leaked to the press after the closed-door confab.
Though top brass from Facebook, Microsoft, Apple, Amazon.com and Alphabet (the parent of search giant Google) attended the closed-door Dec. 14 meeting in New York, they didn’t unite, as they did in 2014, to demand a rule barring internet service providers like Comcast, Verizon or AT&T from creating a two-tiered internet — a faster-transmission lane for a higher price and a slower, throttled one for those who won’t pay extra. Such a rule would force digital publishers and other content providers to pay a toll for highway access and relegate everyone else to a more pedestrian speed.
Perhaps these tops execs viewed bringing up this issue as a lost cause. Trump has not only spoken out against existing net neutrality rules — arguing that it discriminates against conservative news sources — but he also harbors a potential conflict of interest because of his affiliation with NBC’s “Apprentice” reality game show franchise. Trump says he intends to remain executive producer for the spinoff “Celebrity Apprentice” series. NBC is owned by net neutrality opponent Comcast.
Should the Federal Communications Commission reverse a February 2015 decision to implement net neutrality rules, which declared the internet an important public utility prone to greater oversight, major television networks including NBC could pay for access to a fast-lane internet and NBC could have further preferential treatment over its rivals when it rides on Comcast’s network.
Last week the FCC's chairman, Tom Wheeler, a strong supporter of net neutrality, said he would be stepping down on Jan. 20, the day of Trump’s inauguration, leaving two vacancies at the five-member commission and a 2-1 Republican majority that could begin dismantling regulations from Day One. Trump recently picked economist Jeff Eisenach and former Sprint lobbyist Mark Jamison to oversee FCC hiring and policy and is rumored to be considering Brandt Hershman, a longtime Indiana state senator and close ally of Trump’s vice president-elect, Mike Pence, as a replacement for Wheeler.
Consumer rights groups, smaller digital publishers and streaming startups like Netflix and Hulu strongly oppose any effort to dismantle net neutrality. Google has largely been in support of net neutrality and said it would refuse to pay for prioritized access but in 2010 stood with Verizon in a push to change FCC rules to exclude wireless carriers from the net neutrality rules for wired networks.
Internet service providers argue that they have to invest billions of dollars to support increasing demand arising from heavy-bandwidth internet traffic, like movie streaming.
But none of these gigantic internet service providers are suffering financially. According to their 2015 annual reports, Comcast earned $8.2 billion in profit on $74.5 billion in revenue, Verizon earned $17.8 billion in profit on $131.6 billion in revenue and AT&T earned $13.7 billion in profit on $146.8 billion in revenue.
With a new administration headed by the former host and current executive producer of “Celebrity Apprentice,” these big internet traffic carriers will have a friend in the White House who just might like their business propositions.