“There are two modes of invading private property; the first, by which the poor plunder the rich … sudden and violent; the second, by which the rich plunder the poor, slow and legal.”
That’s John Taylor in An Inquiry into the Principles and Policy of the Government of the United States in 1814. It’s the epigraph to Robert Reich’s Saving Capitalism, which was published in 2015 and which explores the various ways in which massive corporates have twisted the rule of law to benefit the wealthy and to spurn the customer base — the poor, more often than not.
It’s a worthy read these days (a documentary on the book was released on Netflix just yesterday), as the FCC announces its plan to dismantle net neutrality laws. Reich explains how property, monopoly, contract and bankruptcy laws have been twisted by pro-business legislation in recent decades. Regulations are loosened, generally, in the name of increased competition and investment in innovative technologies — and the subsequent savings are passed along to customers! But, as it turns out so often, that deregulation ends up consolidating ownership of, e.g., media platforms or internet services — leaving no incentive to benefit the customer or improve infrastructure. In the end, there’s no real competition at all. The corporate power structure won the game a long time ago.
I think about this now, because we’re going to see a profound leap in telecom and ISP deregulation once the FCC approves this plan in December. While I’m certainly concerned as, like, a Netflix subscriber, I’m watching more intently for the effects on the poor populations in America — for the effects on the growing wealth and income and education gaps.
If I was worried about how Americans’ access to public education and the information economy is dwindling (and producing the 2016 presidential election vote margin), then I’m really worried about how lower- and middle-class Americans of all ages will fare once the internet is packaged into increasingly expensive private data services. Life will be more difficult on an almost unimaginable scale for so many.
Already in the poorest neighborhoods in Cleveland, AT&T has used deregulation to limit its own infrastructure upgrades. Because the company lobbied for certain state laws that would benefit its market share, AT&T can now pick and choose which customers it will support (the ones with money, of course). This is part and parcel of private companies’ preference for profit, but — bear in mind — AT&T’s own sprawling market share was what gave it the leverage to lobby state legislators in the first place, legislators who went on to declare that the internet would no longer be considered a public utility. The floodgates were opened, by AT&T and for AT&T.
If you can afford their U-Verse upgrades, rolled out during the 2010s, then big whoop. But if you were struggling in the inner city, you never even got a shot at experiencing improved internet access. You were frozen in digital time, stuck in place, like always. Access to public education (social studies .pdf homework), job application materials, local political candidate information, social networking: It all grows more distant, and the wealth gap grows wider.
This is intentional.
“The important question is how such [market share] decisions are made and influence,” Reich writes in his book. “Many of the corporations that have gained dominance over large swaths of the economy in recent years have done so by extending their domains of intellectual property; expanding their ownership of natural monopolies, where economies of scale are critical; merging with or acquiring other companies in the same market; gaining control over networks and platforms that become industry standards; or using licensing agreements to enlarge their dominance and control. Such economic power has simultaneously increased their influence over government decisions about whether such practices should be allowed.”
Which brings us to 2017’s ISP coup.