For a moment, it appeared that right-wing pundit Ann Coulter was coming out in support of net neutrality, a concept traditionally championed by progressives in order to prevent big corporations that bring us the internet from meddling with how we access information online.
"I just think we'll all wake up one day and I'll try to go to Breitbart, and I won't be able to get there," Coulter said during a "town hall" held by Breitbart News Network, the conservative news site, in a New Orleans suburb last week. "I'll try to email you, and it won't be able to get there. I won't be able to find the Drudge Report."
Coulter's comment appears to echo arguments long made by progressives: Without firm net neutrality regulations, big internet service providers like AT&T and Comcast could dampen online voices outside the mainstream and prioritize those that make them more money. The Obama administration enacted net neutrality protections in 2015 despite conservative opposition, and the Trump administration has since dismantled the rules.
However, Coulter's comment was not directed toward the service providers that bring the internet into our homes. She was talking about the impact that big web platforms like Google and Facebook have on what we see online.
While liberals have skewered Facebook for allowing Russian propagandists to use the world's largest social network to influence the 2016 elections, conservatives have accused Silicon Valley giants like Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Google of censoring and discriminating against right-wing social media users and websites like Breitbart under the guise of combating "fake news" and hate speech.
"Any attack on the internet, on total free speech on the internet, is a disaster for conservatives," said Coulter, who also suggested that Big Tech was aiding the mainstream media efforts to derail President Trump. "It's absolutely shocking what is being done to Breitbart. This is a major threat."
This "threat" has conservatives doing some odd mental gymnastics. Some are even bucking the Republican Party's line and calling on Congress to impose federal regulations on web platforms as well as internet service providers, even as the Trump administration takes the Federal Communication Commission's (FCC) existing net neutrality regulations off the books. How did we get here?
Reinstating net neutrality at the FCC is not the same as giving Facebook a free pass to censor content.
The Breitbart town hall was entitled "Masters of the Universe" and featured Coulter, Breitbart head editor Alex Marlow and Robert Epstein, a psychologist who researches mass data collection and media manipulation online. The panelists derided the "oligarchs" at Facebook and Google for violating user privacy and shaping the national political narrative to their liberal liking, a problem they said both sides of the political aisle should be concerned about.
Conservatives may assume that everyone working in Silicon Valley is a staunch progressive (which is not necessarily true), but the immense power held by the likes of Facebook and Google has raised concerns on both the left and the right. Lawmakers of both parties have called on Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to appear before Congress this week in the wake of several scandals, including allegations that the consulting firm Cambridge Analytica improperly harvested data from millions of Facebook users to aid the Trump campaign during the last election.
Big web platforms like Netflix support net neutrality because it prevents internet service providers from charging them extra fees to reach customers, but as Truthout has reported, net neutrality also protects consumer and civil rights. Some conservatives are now attempting to paint liberals and progressives as close allies to Silicon Valley as it undermines online privacy and free expression. Breitbart's town hall was held in partnership with Free Our Internet, an obscure group that appears to support net neutrality in some form, but has also pledged to fight "the tech-left's assault of free speech."
Free Our Internet did not respond to an inquiry from Truthout, but the group's website declares that Facebook and Google have "stolen everything we do online and sold it to political campaigns and advertisers." The web behemoths "don't show us what we want" but "what they want us to see," which is presumably skewed to the left. Who is to blame? According to Free Our Internet, it's the Democrats and their "fake" net neutrality rules.
Polls show that a clear majority of voters -- including 75 percent of Republicans -- support the net neutrality rules that the Republican-controlled FCC recently repealed with Trump's blessing. In February, leading Democrats introduced legislation in Congress that would reverse this decision, and if Republicans don't get on board, Democrats plan to use the issue against them in the midterm elections.
Free Our Internet claims the much-debated net neutrality rules are "fake" because they only apply to providers like Verizon and Comcast, not to big web platforms like Google and Facebook. In a petition to Congress, the group claims that a vote for the legislation undoing the net neutrality repeal "is a vote in favor of allowing Facebook and Google to continue blocking and censoring content, stealing our personal information, and selling it to advertisers and politicians."
Instead, the group says, Congress should impose consumer protection regulations on Facebook and Google and any other company that deals with online content -- an odd request, considering that conservatives tend to oppose new regulations on businesses, particularly under Trump. Apparently, this standard does not apply to corporations perceived to be run by liberal technocrats conspiring to undermine a Republican president.
"Because conservatives decided that regulation is always bad, the only way they can justify the regulation is to somehow imagine that there is this conspiracy out there to justify that regulation," said Harold Feld, vice president of the digital rights group Public Knowledge, in an interview with Truthout.
Free Our Internet could learn a thing or two from Feld, who has worked in telecommunications policy long enough to remember when Republicans used to support net neutrality before the Tea Party takeover allowed the telecom lobby to put the issue on its deregulatory wish list.
For starters, it was the FCC, not Congress, that imposed net neutrality rules on internet service providers. Companies in charge of the physical wiring that brings us the internet clearly fall under the agency's jurisdiction, but social media sites and search engines do not, at least under current federal statutes. Reinstating net neutrality at the FCC is not the same as giving Facebook a free pass to censor content.
"Who controls access to the entire communications network, that's a very different issue than what are the platforms (on that network) where these ideas are discussed," Feld said.
There are only so many fiber lines and cable wires that physically connect us to the internet, which explains why internet service providers enjoy monopolies and duopolies in many markets, leaving consumers with few choices. Once online, however, consumers can choose whether to use Facebook, Google or any number of competing services.
Large numbers of people do choose the major platforms, providing the data necessary to create powerful search engines and global social networks. The sheer popularity of Facebook, Google and YouTube also gives the companies behind the platforms power to control how large numbers of people access information and interact with each other, raising real questions about how to hold them accountable in the public square.
"I don't have to make up conspiracy theories to show how people do cyber bulling or manipulate news and information everyday [on social media]," Feld said. "It's a question we need to answer, but you don't answer it by treating it as some sort of revenge for net neutrality. You deal with it by actually looking at the problem."
Should Twitter be required to remove hate speech from its network, or recognize a racist troll's right to free speech? Is hate speech the same as harassment? Facebook and Google remain largely unregulated. Should Congress empower the FCC to regulate them, or change antitrust law so the Federal Trade Commission can break up networks when they get too big? Feld said these are the real questions facing lawmakers and the Zuckerbergs of the world, but in casting themselves as victims, conservatives seem to be missing the point.