Editorial: The issue overlooked in the net neutrality debate

The debate on net neutrality is not new, yet it’s still a far cry from being resolved. Headlines this week are a testament to that. After the newly-appointed Federal Communications Chair, Ajit Pai, repealed the Obama-era net neutrality rules – officially called the Open Internet Order – Democrats have proposed a plan to reverse that repeal, and they have 60 days to do it. Through a process called a Congressional Review Act, regulatory actions implemented by entities like the FCC can be overturned by a majority vote in both chambers.

One of the overarching problems with the debate surrounding the repeal is that much of the general population does not understand what net neutrality is, or what the consequences of its repeal could mean.

For starters, net neutrality is essentially the guiding principle for a free and open Internet, to which everyone should enjoy equal access. Repealing regulations surrounding an open internet would mean that Internet service providers (ISPs) would be able to offer benefits to content providers who paid more, and filter internet traffic in particular directions.

Granted, none of these effects would be all that palpable – at least not in the short term. It would likely be a gradual process, one that might slip the attention of the average user. One ramification, however, has already begun to come to fruition and has largely been swept under the rug by the FCC: the threat against American democracy by foreign influences. We are referring specifically to one such influence – Russia.

Prior to its decision to repeal net neutrality regulations, the FCC opened up the floor to public comments online. Over 22 million comments flooded the post, however it has since been found that the majority of those comments were from fake accounts, which were likely logged by bots according to an analysis by the Pew Research Center. According to a study done by Startup Policy Lab as part of their “Truth in Public Comments” project, almost all of the comments in favor of the FCC’s proposed repeal were fake, while most of the pro-neutrality comments were real. Most notably, nearly half of the fake comments originated from either one or more Russian email account(s).

The significance of this foreign interference cannot be understated. We have already dealt with political plots initiated by Russian internet hackers, with their bot-driven proliferation of fake news during the 2016 election. Perhaps the most concerning aspect of this situation is that it’s not being talked about, probably because no one understands it. This may be precisely what the Kremlin hackers aim to do: confuse both politicians and the public to the point where no conclusive decision can be reached.

The primary issue with Russia’s intervention in the decision to repeal net neutrality would be their continued interest in exploiting and corroding American institutions. Russia certainly has much to gain in the control of what the average American sees on the internet, just as they had much to gain in how the average American viewed Hillary Clinton: political influence. If the FCC continues to hold in place the repeal of net neutrality, it leaves open the possibility of Russian involvement in the regulation of information on the internet, in the same way that some ISPs were controlling internet traffic before the regulations were put in place in 2015 by Obama. For example, Comcast, the biggest ISP serving the United States as of May 2017, accepted payment from Netflix before regulations were put in place to improve their accessibility to consumers.

As Robert Hannigan, former director of Great Britain’s NSA-equivalent, the GCHQ, puts it, “the end of net neutrality would allow hostile foreign states new avenues to spend their way into silencing or overriding opposing views.”

The Bucknellian, primarily concerned with the preservation of American liberties, supports net neutrality for this reason, among many others. However, the threat of foreign influences infringing upon these liberties seems to have gone largely overlooked.

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