Analysis Just because it was inevitable doesn't make it bearable.
Having announced just before Thanksgiving that the FCC, America's broadband watchdog, was indeed planning to gut its own rules on net neutrality, it took until Monday for the full whirlwind of madness on the topic to pick up speed.
And, friend, has it arrived, encompassing everything from pizza deliveries to protests to finger pointing. Not to mention accusations of fraud, corporate shilling, fake news, and everything in between.
Network neutrality is rapidly joining abortion and guns as an issue that the United States has become incapable of discussing rationally, with an increasingly partisan edge to it.
FCC boss Ajit Pai emits his net neutrality extermination planREAD MORE
Here is a taste of the nonsense that has exploded in the past few days plus a quick rational reminder of what is really going on for anyone who has forgotten reality amid the madness.
First up, the virtual battles.
Comcast has, again, taken out a massive Twitter ad campaign relaying the same message as last time: we support net neutrality and we won't block, slow or throttle your internet, we promise.
Depending on which side of the fence you sit on, this message unequivocally proves your position: either Comcast is pointing out that the current rules are ridiculous and unnecessary, or the US cable giant is engaging in two-faced corporate propaganda. And there is no shortage of people bellowing about both sides.
As we have come to expect with social media, posts have rapidly shifted from talking – well, shouting – about the actual issues to shouting about what idiots the other side are.
Perhaps the best summation of this noisy, pointless back-and-forth comes in a tweet from Dan Rayburn, a man who describes himself as being "recognized by many as the voice for the streaming and online video industry." Dan wrote, complete with hashtags and spelling mistakes:
Post after post about #NetNeutraility are just flat out wrong. Repealing net neutrality will NOT give consumers "slower Internet access". It won't make it "more difficult for new companies to grow", and it won't mean "consumers will have lower bandwidth caps". Ridicilous.
Dan is right. But he's also playing the strawman game and actively ignoring the many valid points that advocates for net neutrality are making. But who needs rational policymaking and discussion when we're talking about nationwide access to information?
On the flip side, every word uttered by the cable companies is being parsed and held up as evidence of a vast corporate conspiracy. Comcast, for example, has started adding the point that it won't "discriminate against lawful content." Which, of course, totally means that it has an evil plan to shut down everything that isn't produced by its media company pals.
The fact that Comcast also said, in its filing to the FCC back in July, that it would not introduce "anti-competitive paid prioritization" is also being flagged up as evidence that the moment the rules are rescinded we will have fast internet lanes for extra dollars – and by extension a slower internet for every not willing to pay a premium.
Talking of comments to the FCC, they are also a hotbed of conspiracy and anger.
First up we have an "open letter" to the FCC from New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman in which he states that there has been a "massive scheme to corrupt the FCC's notice and comment process through the misuse of enormous numbers of real New Yorkers’ and other Americans' identities."
In other words, fake comments sent to the FCC, the majority of which have been in support of the current effort to kill off the rules.
Schneiderman notes that "such conduct likely violates state law" and castigates the FCC for having "refused multiple requests for crucial evidence in its sole possession that is vital to permit that law enforcement investigation to proceed."
It's not been hard for people to find a conspiracy in that, which, to be fair, has not been helped by the FCC claiming that it was subject to a denial-of-service attack and then failing to provide any evidence of it.
Another analysis of the literally millions of comments sent on the issue concludes that there was a concerted campaign of fake comments and identifies one campaign that sent no less than 1.3 million submissions and attempted to pass them off as individual commentors.
According to that analysis, "it's highly likely that more than 99 per cent of the truly unique comments were in favor of keeping net neutrality."
Denial of denial of service
The unfortunate reality is that the current FCC leadership does stand to gain, theoretically, from millions of comments supporting its position as a way to counteract the millions of comments opposing it.
But does that amount to a conspiracy? Or is the FCC simply turning a blind eye? Or does it simply not know what to do when faced with literally millions of comments and wild-eyed angry people? There's no time to contemplate that: we must keep shouting.
Let's move on to the people at the center of the dispute that will actually make the decision. There are five commissioners and we already know that three of them will vote for the rules repeal and two will vote against, splitting down Republican and Democrat party lines – the Republicans in favor of repealing regulation.
One of the two opposed, Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel has written an op-ed for the LA Times (for some reason) in which she takes issue with the plan and, amazingly, encourages more of the madness by arguing that "it deserves a heated response from the millions of Americans who work and create online every day."
She suggests that everyone "do something old-fashioned: make a ruckus." Because that's what the net neutrality debate needs right now: more anger.
And if thought things couldn't get any weirder, we also have a pornographic website taking the high ground. That's right, PornHub – a rather popular website that goes out of its way to cram as much sexually explicit content on its front page as possible – has told netizens it is fighting back against efforts to track the kind of porn people are watching by offering encryption. The site is proudly HTTPS.
"Welcome to 2017, America," a message from the company reads, "where porn websites care more about you more than the government."
And if all that wasn't ridiculous enough, FCC chair Ajit Pai is being personally targeted in the real world by people who have lost their minds to such an alarming degree that they are scribbling messages on cardboard naming his kids and taping them onto lampposts near his home.
"Is this really the world you want [kid's name] and [kid's name] to inherit?" one demented notice reads. "How will they ever look you in the eye again?"
Another reads, no lie: "Dad murdered democracy in cold blood."
According to one report, Pai's home was also inundated with pizzas over the weekend, with a new one arriving every 30 minutes. A harmless prank or a sign that people have lost their minds?
Of course, rather than be appalled by what is clearly crossing the lines of reasonable discourse, net neutrality advocates see this kind of demented behavior as evidence of just how far their opponents are willing to go.
"We saw 'ratfuck' efforts before where efforts were attributed to pro NN activists which were actually by opponents," Daniel Schuman noted conspiratorially. "We saw it at a protest, in the fake comments filed, etc. I'd be careful of attribution." Daniel is not an internet conspiracy loon, he's the policy director for Demand Progress, one of the main groups advocating for the existing rules.
And this, of course, is the problem. As with the current incumbent of the White House, the peddling of conspiracies, mockery of opponents, and promotion of aggressive and violent partisan viewpoints is coming not from fringe lunatics but the people who sit at the top.
It's a situation that means any hope of compromise or intelligent policy discourse is lost amid the turmoil of accusation and counter-accusation: to everyone's detriment.