Are the Russians colluding with American telecoms to kill Net Neutrality? If so, why? Why does Putin care how your internet content is delivered, or not delivered?
Freedom of the Press is guaranteed only to those who own one. — A.J. Liebling
Occasionally I get an email decrying some vast conspiracy of international oligarchs. I usually dismiss the message as (1) farfetched and tenuous, (2) paranoid and, (3) most important, unlikely. What’s unlikely is the assumption that members of international oligarchies have common interests when, in fact, many oligarchies have parochial interests and compete with outside or non-allied groups. Saudi Arabia’s interests, for example, might compete with those of its neighbors, especially Iran — or Iran’s accomplice in Mideast mischief, Russia. The interests of the oligarchs of a nominal democracy, such as India, might conflict with those of its neighbors Pakistan or China, and so on.
However, the unlikelihood of a truly global conspiracy — or a globally unified Orwellian détente between superpowers — doesn’t preclude certain oligarchies from forming alliances, either with traditional partners such as the British and American “one percenters” or, potentially, with new partners such as Russia’s “oilagarchy” and certain elements in America’s wealthy corporate and political class. Significant evidence of such an attempted pairing has come to light through the Trump/Russia investigations. Clearly Russia interfered with our electoral process, “stirred the shit” around a variety of hot-button cultural issues — especially by exacerbating racial tensions on social media — and engaged in other nefarious fifth-column “persuasions” via the internet.
So far, it seems, the main evidence of direct contacts between assorted Kremlinites (Kremlin + acolyte) and America’s upper crust has been the profusely-documented contacts between Russia and the relatively inept (as conspirators) Trump crowd. The motivation for Putin’s interference in our electoral process is obvious — create a pliant U.S. President and administration and the sanctions against Russia will be lifted (that backfired) and the Motherland’s imperial ambitions will be enhanced, or at least go unchallenged by the world’s sole remaining superpower.
But what if Russia’s ambition, and the extent of its reach into our society, goes beyond the mere control of America’s short-term Presidency? (Trump will remain in power for, at the most, seven more years, and Putin appears to be playing the long game.) What if Russia is working with elements in our political and corporate oligarchies to subvert American democracy and create an even more fundamental shift toward corporate control of our democracy?
This hadn’t occurred to me until I read the Common Dreams article FCC Commissioner Urges Fraud Investigation Ahead of Net Neutrality Vote and followed it up with the source article in Wired by said FCC Commissioner, The FCC Shouldn’t Vote on Net Neutrality Until It Investigates Comment Fraud.
The articles, almost as an afterthought, introduced the specter of Russian influence in the FCC’s policy proscriptions. While I was already aware of the basic issue the article discussed — that someone wrote a bot to steal one million people’s internet addresses and use them to send identical false “public comments” supporting FCC chairman Ajit Pai’s proposal to kill Net Neutrality — what I hadn’t heard is that half a million additional phony messages had been sent to the FCC from a Russian email address.
Huh? What’s Russia got to do with it?
To understand some of the possible implications of Russian attacks on the U.S. internet’s rules, let’s take a quick look at the backstory.
The internet’s current rules, encapsulated in the term “Net Neutrality,” specify that internet service providers (ISPs) like AT&T, Verizon and Comcast must make all internet content available to you for the same price (your monthly subscription fee) and deliver it at the same speed. So whether you want to read Faux News or Firebird Journal online, both are equally available to you.
As mentioned above, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, a Trump appointee and former corporate lawyer for the giant telecom Verizon, has proposed that the FCC scrap Net Neutrality, and has scheduled a vote of the five FCC commissioners (three Republican, two Democratic) on December 14, 2017 (this week) to decide the issue. If the Net Neutrality rules are scrapped, ISPs will have the right to censor the internet content that is available to you; or to “soft censor” your options by simply slowing down sites like Firebird Journal of the Huffington Post so they could take several minutes to load onto your screen, while delivering their preferred content — Wall Street Journal? Faux News? Breitbart News? — at normal or even enhanced speed. In other words, corporations will decide what you get to read and watch.
When the FCC deliberates taking such an action it must, by law, take the public’s input into account. Thus, a public comment mechanism is set up, and comments are accepted for a certain period prior to the agency’s vote.
The issue at hand, scrapping net neutrality, has generated millions of public comments. Virtually all internet users and companies, ranging from giants like Google and Facebook to little startups and “citizen journalists” (think “bloggers”) like me, have submitted comments against changing the net neutrality rules. We want the internet, which was built with public funds and initiative, to remain free and open, equally accessible to all users.
But in addition to the 23 million comments the public has submitted against the rule change, about 1.5 million comments in favor of it have also been delivered. (Along with 1.5 million verbal comments from Washington telecom lobbyists!) Of those favorable “public comments,” it seems about one million were generated by the above mentioned bot. It stole people’s names from their emails and submitted them with a generic message in the “for” column — even though most, if not all, of those people are against the rule change.
(This is a crime — identity theft — and it is being investigated by New York’s attorney general. We need to know, among other things, who wrote and activated the bot. Some right-wing hacker working in his basement? A black-op working for Verizon or, perhaps, for Brietbart/Trump donor Robert Mercer? Ajit Pai, who is aware of the crime, is refusing to cooperate with the investigation, and NY’s prosecutors will likely have to subpoena the relevant documents to proceed.)
While the bot writer’s motivation is clear — give the (false) appearance of grassroots support for gutting net neutrality — why Russia cares enough about the issue to generate emails from 500,000 phony “rule-change supporters” remains a mystery. It’s certainly no accident, but beyond that…?
My own thinking, thus far, is that the Russians, possibly because they are being coached by someone in the U.S., understand that one of the principal functions of the American internet is to ensure freedom of the press — it gives a voice to those who would otherwise not have one in our increasingly corporatized media environment, a place for truly independent journalism to exist. Open internet access also allows for the free discussion of every kind of issue, gives political groups a voice, and empowers political movements ranging from the Alt-right to far more representative groups such as the Women’s March and Black Lives Mater to organize online.
Thus, a free internet is a threat to the corporate state. (Think, “fascism,” as defined by that term’s originator, Benito Mussolini, as the melding of the corporation and the state.)
The internet’s role in preserving democracy could not have been lost on those who want to see it curtailed or eliminated — they’ve attacked Net Neutrality in the past. The current group donning the anti-democratic mantle of course includes the Trump crowd and their followers and sponsors such as the Koch brothers and the Mercers. It’s clear that the Trumpistas want to establish something like an old-fashioned fascist state. Are they the ones engaging the Russians to help gut net neutrality? If that’s the case, their connections are unlikely to remain clandestine — it seems as though everyone from the FBI to Congress to the NY Times to your favorite little independent website is looking for evidence of the Trump crowd’s Russian collusion these days, It’s not hard to find. The far right is not known for its subtlety — only for its obstinacy and brutality.
But does anti-democracy faction also include less obvious players such as reactionary elements within the mainstream corporate structure? And what is the relation of those players, if any, with the Russians?
Is there a deeper, less obvious connection between America’s corporate oligarchies who might visualize themselves as the proper engineers of social control, and one of its most accomplished practitioners, the Putin regime? Are there individuals outside the Trump circle who harbor anti-democratic sentiments and are willing to make deals with the devil to advance their agenda? Certainly money is a factor — the telecoms stand to profit greatly by taking over the internet. But beyond money, what ideological ties exist between America’s corporate and Russia’s state actors?
Time may or may not tell. It is almost certain that the Net Neutrality rules will be scrapped by the Trumpublicans who control the FCC. It is equally certain that, if the rules are scrapped, the issue will be litigated by any number of groups and individuals with “standing” to sue, ranging from Google and Netflix to Salon to individual consumers of internet content to me. The lawsuits will, at least temporarily, forestall the corporate larceny of our internet.
The Net Neutrality proponents will be aided in their litigation by the FCC’s ongoing refusal to address the illegitimate comments submitted by both the bots and the Russians. Therefore, one of the tasks of preserving democracy, going forward, will be to make sure that the right questions are asked by the plaintiffs in court, and by everyone else across the internet…while it’s still available.
— Philip S. Wenz