Pluralistic: How cable monopolists tricked conservatives into shooting themselves in the face (15 Dec 2022)

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A hunter in camo firing a rifle whose barrel has been bent back to point at his own face. A muzzle flash emerges from the barrel. The hunter wears a MAGA hat. Behind the hunter is a telephone pole with many radiating lines. In the bottom left corner of the image is a 1950s-style illustration of a broadly smiling salesman, pointing at a box that is emblazoned with the logo for ALEC.

How cable monopolists tricked conservatives into shooting themselves in the face (permalink)

No matter how hard conservative culture-war cannon-fodder love big business, it will never love them back. Take network policy, where rural turkeys in Red State America keep on voting for Christmas, then profess outrage when Old Farmer Comcast gets to sharpening his ax.

For two years, the FCC has been hamstrung because MAGA Senators refuse to confirm Gigi Sohn, leaving the Commission with only four commissioners. What do the GOP have against Sohn? Well, to hear them tell of it, she's some kind of radical Marxist who will undermine free enterprise and replace the internet with tin cans and string.

The reality is that Sohn favors policies that will specifically and substantially benefit the rural Americans whose senators who refuse to confirm her. For example, Sohn favors municipal fiber provision, which low-information conservatives have been trained to reflexively reject: "Get your government out of my internet!"

Boy, are they ever wrong. The private sector sucks at providing network connectivity, especially in rural places. The cable companies and phone companies have divided up the USA like the Pope dividing up the "New World," setting out exclusive, non-competing territories that get worse service than anyone else in the wealthy world. Americans pay some of the highest prices for the lowest speeds of any OECD nation.

For ISPs, bad service is a feature, not a bug. When Frontier went bankrupt in 2020, we got to look at its books, which is how we discovered that the company booked the one million rural customers with no alternative as "assets" because they could be charged more for slower, less reliable service:

We also learned that Frontier had calculated that it could make an extra billion in profit by bringing fiber to three million households, but chose not to, because it would take a decade to realize those profits, and during that time, executives' stock options would decline in value as analysts punished them for making long-term bets.

We can bring fiber to rural America, and when we do, amazing things happen. McKee, Kentucky – one of the poorest places in America – used federal grants and its New Deal era rural electrification co-op to bring fiber to every household, using a mule called Ole Bub to run it over difficult mountain passes, and the result was an economic miracle:

The only Americans who consistently say they like their ISPs are people who live in the 700+ small towns that have run their own fiber, mostly in Red States:

Small wonder that rural Americans prefer muni fiber to commercial ISPs' offerings. When Trump's FCC Chair Ajit Pai gave them billions in subsidies to improve rural connectivity, the monopolists spent it pulling new copper lines, not fiber – which would have been thousands of times faster.

Given all that, it takes a lot to convince rural Americans that municipal fiber is bad for them. Specifically, it takes disinformation. More specifically, it takes the lie that municipal fiber would result in "government interference" in users' communications.

Boy, is this ever wrong. Private companies are free to set their own content moderation policies, and can discriminate against any viewpoint they wish. They can and do remove "lawful but awful" speech like racist diatribes, vaccine denial, election denial, and other conservative fever-dreams.

Contrast that with local governments, who are bound by the First Amendment, and prohibited from practicing "viewpoint discrimination." This means that if a local government allows one viewpoint on a subject, they are generally required to allow all other viewpoints on that subject. This is how we get the Satanic Temple's excellent stunts, like demanding that towns that display Christian icons on public lands also display statues of Baphomet right next to them.

When your town government runs 100gb fiber into your basement or garage, it will have a much harder time blocking you from, say, running a Mastodon instance devoted to election denial or GhostGun production than your commercial ISP will. Convincing American conservatives to hate municipal broadband was a gigantic self-own:

Even worse is what rural America has been sold instead of municipal fiber: Starlink, the My Pillow of broadband. Starlink sells itself as blazing-fast satellite broadband, but conspicuously fails to talk up the fact that every Starlink user in your neighborhood competes for the same wireless spectrum as you, so the service can only get slower and more expensive over time:

There's been a concerted smear campaign against Sohn, and one of the major talking points is that Sohn is anti-cop because she sits on EFF's board, and EFF wants to place limits on police access to commercial surveillance data. Which is wild, because one of EFF's demands is limits on geofenced reverse warrants, where cops ask Google to reveal the identity of everyone who was in a specific place at a specific time. If you've heard about geofenced warrants lately, it was probably in the context of conservative outrage at their use in rounding up the January 6 insurrectionists.

Now, the primary use of these is to target Black Lives Matter demonstrators and other protestors, and EFF advocates for the normal Fourth Amendment rights that everyone is guaranteed in the Constitution. Conservative pundits didn't give a damn about geofenced warrants until the J6 affair, and now they do – but they still insist that Sohn should be disqualified from sitting on the FCC because she shares their outrage at the abuse of private surveillance data by law enforcement.

All this raises the question: why have all these Red State senators made it their mission in life to block the appointment of an FCC commissioner who would deliver so many benefits to their constituents? It's hard to say, of course, but Luke Goldstein has a suggestion in today's American Prospect:

"A torrent of lobbying money from the telecom industry has flooded Washington to block Sohn’s arrival at the FCC. AT&T, Comcast, Verizon, and T-Mobile doled out over $23 million lobbying Washington this year."

And why would these companies spend millions to block Sohn from sitting on the Commission? Because she would help the Democratic majority pass policies that make broadband cheaper and faster for America, especially rural America where costs are highest and service is worst, and this will limit the telco monopolists' profits.

There's a new Democratic senate majority that'll sit in 2023, so perhaps Sohn will finally be seated and start delivering relief to all Americans, even the turkeys who can't stop voting for Christmas.

Hey look at this (permalink)

This day in history (permalink)

#15yrsago E911 document podcast: Historic, incredibly dull technical document read aloud

#10yrsago UK record industry seeks to financially ruin leaders of the Pirate Party

#5yrsago A deep dive into the race to preserve our digital heritage

#5yrsago Documenting the laughable lies the FCC told at the hearing where it killed Net Neutrality

#5yrsago Motherboard announces a neutral, meshing community ISP based at Vice’s Brooklyn headquarters

#5yrsago Tobacco giant Philip Morris is quietly funding an “anti-smoking” foundation offering $1 billion in “grants” to public health leaders

#5yrsago Even when a Chicago cop is convicted of wrongdoing, a secret appeals court usually overturns it

#5yrsago Here’s everything that’s wrong with America’s insecure electronic voting machines, and what to do about it

Colophon (permalink)

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