For one night only: Net neutrality punch-up between Big Cable, Big Web this September

Move over, Mayweather and McGregor

The American spectator sport that is net neutrality has just got its own Rumble in the Jungle.

On September 7, the US House Energy and Commerce Committee will hold a hearing titled "Ground rules for the Internet eco-system," its chairman Greg Walden (R-OR) announced during a subcommittee hearing on Tuesday morning, and it is designed to pitch Big Internet against Big Cable in the battle over control of the 'net.

"It's time for Congress to legislate the rules of the internet," Walden declared, "and stop the ping-pong game of regulations and litigation."

Somewhat unusually, he then named the companies whose top executives have been invited to testify. On the tech side: Facebook, Alphabet (Google), Amazon and Netflix. On the cable side: Comcast, AT&T, Verizon and Charter Communications.

"Make no mistake," Walden said, "given the importance of this public policy debate, it is essential that we hear directly from the country's top internet and edge provider leaders who frequently speak out publicly about rules of the internet. It's time they came before us and directly shared their positions and answered our questions."

The decision is a bold but calculated move by the Republicans in Congress to open a path for scrapping existing net neutrality rules by putting tech companies on the spot and hoping they will err on the side of caution when it comes to the Open Internet Order.

It was noticeable during this month's "day of protest" against US broadband watchdog the FCC's plans to scrap the current net neutrality rules that the big tech companies were tepid in their support. They were obliged to support the protest given their previous support of net neutrality and the groundswell of users who expected such a stance – but the fact is that none of the companies brought out their big guns.

And that's because Facebook, Alphabet, Amazon and Netflix are now of such size and scope that net neutrality is less of a priority. Internet users would expect to be able to use each company's services without issue, putting them in a strong negotiating position with cable giants like Comcast and AT&T. If Comcast, for example, were to limit or throttle Facebook, it would almost certainly lose customers as a result.

Art of the deal

At the same time, they have sufficient money and sway to cut deals that could actually benefit their bottom lines by raising barriers to entry for their competitors.

In addition, Big Tech now has many more legislative and regulatory concerns than just net neutrality, given its ever-expanding business: Google is building self-driving cars; Amazon is buying supermarket chains.

The tech giants' policy men in Washington, DC, will likely have already told them that the fight over the Open Internet Order is already lost given the FCC, Republican leadership and president's publicly stated determination to kill it off. There's no point going down with the sinking ship.

That is why during the Day of Action, all we saw from Big Tech were a smattering of limp-wristed blog posts and blink-and-you'll-miss-em protest boxes.

  • Google published a blog post talking about the "open internet" but steered clear of any language that directly challenged the FCC or cable companies. "It's an important chapter in this debate, and we hope you’ll make your voice heard," read the lily-livered effort. Nothing appeared on the Google homepage or in search results.
  • Facebook also published a little post by CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who defined net neutrality as "the idea that the internet should be free and open for everyone." And while he noted that Facebook "strongly supports" the current rules, the next sentence noted "we're also open to working with members of Congress and anyone else on laws to protect net neutrality." Nothing appeared on Facebook's many millions of pages served to global internet users.
  • Most people missed Amazon's call to action. It was stuck between ads on the right-hand side of its website. The master of online user interaction used a plain white box with the text "Net neutrality? Learn more." It would be hard to imagine a less impactful approach.
  • And Netflix continued its schizophrenic approach to net neutrality. Once the fierce warrior on behalf of its users, it ran a thin, grey banner at the top of its website reading "Protect internet freedom. Defend net neutrality. Take action" – with a link to an online petition. To be fair, it also sent out a tweet with a strong support message – but its response was eons away from earlier support and advocacy for net neutrality.

When it comes to formal responses to the FCC's proposal, Big Tech has also hidden behind industry organizations like the Internet Association to make strong criticisms.

As such, the House Energy and Commerce Committee is counting on a muted response from the household internet names – where it would get a very different and more aggressive response by smaller internet companies for whom net neutrality could be a matter of life and death. Don't expect to see Airbnb, Vimeo or Kickstarter invited to the party.

In fact, one of the best options for Big Tech executives could be to skip the hearing altogether – something that chair Walden was all too aware of, which is why he name-checked the companies in a public statement (later posted to the committee's Twitter feed) and included the statement: "With more than a month's notice, I am sure they can arrange their schedules to accommodate our invitations."

On the other side of course, we can expect Big Cable to bring significant supplies of fire and brimstone as they rail against the terrible, business-destroying regulations that will kill off innovation and force them to stop expanding their rollout of broadband.

So while this may still be the tech policy Rumble in the Jungle, it's as if we already know Muhammed Ali's "rope-a-dope" strategy. In other words, it'll make for great TV but we already know how it will go down. ®

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