how trump is making america’s internet and digital economy a lot less great
One of the biggest consequences of choosing leaders who are firmly stuck in the past and are supported primarily by people afraid of the future is that a lot of their policies will ignore the needs of tomorrow at best, and sabotage them at worst. And the latter is what’s happening with Trump’s decisions to put an eager tool of cable and internet provider monopolies in charge of the FCC and appointing someone who knows nothing about computer security to head the efforts to secure our digital infrastructure. In the short term, it means that your internet is about to get a lot more expensive and limited by the same kinds of data caps as your mobile phone, and all our critical digital assets are not going to get any more secure than they are for a while. If you think this isn’t going to affect the American economy in any appreciable way, you would be very wrong. Out fastest growing and most profitable ventures today rotate around technology and smart devices, and these developments will certainly increase the cost of doing business in all these areas.
Let’s start off with the data caps and loss of net neutrality. Believe it or not, against all the basic laws of computing, ISPs decided that data was a finite resource, mined much like gold from nuggets containing a few megabytes, to multi-terabyte veins by byte hunters in the West and the Appalachia, and not something we generate every day with fairly simple math, and want to start charging us as if it is. In short, your computer at home is about to get a lot like your cell phone. Use too much internet, watch too many movies, play too many games, or binge an extra season, and you’ll be paying a hefty fine to your regional monopoly. Comcast is doing it across the country, and now, Cox is getting in the game. Time Warner, which was bought by Charter with the combined company now called Spectrum, doesn’t have caps yet, and not having them was a condition of the merger, but if everyone is charging their customers extra for data overages, it doesn’t take a lawyer to figure out that they’ll sue for the same rights as soon as they feel out the new FCC.
Now, you could say that data caps will be an opportunity for Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon to come up with better content compression to keep more and more users under the limits. But there are two problems with that. First is a floor in how much we can compress content dictated by math and the fact that it may involve a massive change in common file standards. The second is that there’s nothing preventing the ISP monopolies from declaring that a lot of users are under their current limit anyway, so they can lower the caps some more. We’re not dealing with a technical challenge but a blatant cash grab by companies that made sure you have no choice but to pay them. And as they bemoan any regulation as “killing innovation” they battle attempts to introduce any competition to their markets. Desperate cities where ISPs will not provide sufficient service have tried creating municipal broadband and a number of them quickly faced legislation making it illegal. Under the asinine and backwards logic of the ISPs, only another major ISP should be allowed to compete with them in any way, even if they’re not in the market yet.
What this ultimately means for you is that your internet provider can nickel and dime you in all sorts of new ways that are horrible for your wallet, and there will be no one to stop them. New businesses, which may have serious data transfers to do, will also get hit. There are currently unlimited tiers for companies that have data caps, but they’re now free to impose more caps on more tiers of service, and restrain innovation for businesses that rely on the web to bring in sales, manage territory, and provide services to customers, which in this century, is at least three quarters of all companies. There’s no other way to look at this. You will pay a lot more for less service, and be at the mercy of a monopoly which the powers that be will be loath to break up because they’re worried about the donations they get from it, not whether a market is competitive or if you’re being gouged. Anything done on the web to cut costs and boost innovations is now going to be more expensive for the average American unless there’s a huge outcry aimed at Congress.
Meanwhile, if you want to start your own business in a world where there’s no such thing as net neutrality, you may find yourself paying ISPs for access to your customers. Without net neutrality rules, these monopolies can pick and choose what traffic they will deliver to whom and how. If a competitor paid more, they could even inject ads for your competition before allowing a customer to open your website. It’s the digital equivalent of selling roads to one large, private entity which tears them up and re-routes them any way it sees fit to get more money out of those who pay for a monthly pass to drive on them. And if you have enough cash, you can pay this entity to move one of those roads from your competitor to you, or have them build a shiny, new ten lane expressway leading to your store while they turn the roads leading to your competition into a single lane dirt path, or into toll roads, requiring their customers to pay even more to get to them. This is why net neutrality is such a huge deal to techies. Losing it will hurt the digital economy.
Similarly, having someone who doesn’t know to refresh his SSL certificate on a public facing website in charge of cyber security also doesn’t bode well in a world where nations are more likely to hack each other than go to war. We’ll once again hear ridiculous, impossible requests like backdoors to encrypted communications but only for the good guys, leaving us with a compromised, easily disrupted digital infrastructure that will be a boon for criminals and a few tech savvy nation states. Consider that poorly secured devices using the web to communicate with each other and their control center were used for the biggest, baddest attacks ever seen on the web. Just combine the absolute nightmare scenario of a business with vast online assets that will have to pay more to deliver services to its customers, and having to worry about its data centers and cloud providers being muscled offline with enormous botnets as our “cyber czar” has to read the Wikipedia page about DDoSes before taking any action towards helping to secure the nation’s digital backbone.
You’d think that moves like this, which threaten the growth and operation of companies that use the web to do their business, would concern Trump and his administration, which is supposedly all about jobs and encouraging free and open markets in which to compete. But you’d be wrong because we have a government supported and ran by Luddites whose sole concern is bringing in more factory or construction and manufacturing related jobs. Every other kind of employment and business is irrelevant to them because they did not support them for the reasons outlined in great detail in this post. We knew it was going to happen because we were told loud and clear by Republicans to expect net neutrality and ISP regulations to go away if Trump won. Now the selective regulation of trade and neglect of businesses that are growing, not stagnating or have calcified into monopolies, means that we’re about to take one of the economic triumphs of the past century and screw it up because a malicious bought-and-paid-for political hack, and a clueless sycophant hold a scary amount of power over out digital future.
But there is something you can do. Call, e-mail, and otherwise message your senators and representatives, show up to their town halls, and ask why they are fine with regional monopolies buying laws to prevent competition and if there’s a reason why the FCC is allowing them to gouge you with nonsense justifications. Tell them it harms businesses, consumers, and will stifle jobs, and that fear of going over the limit on a data cap will prevent you from all sorts of web-based transactions in the future. Tell them you have absolutely no confidence that the web is safe from attackers and that any support for a law requiring encryption backdoors is support for more identify theft, more cybercrime, and a massive blow to the modern economy. And if they refuse to understand what they’re doing, ask them how they feel about young and highly educated science and tech experts leaving to start their businesses in other nations, where they take their digital infrastructure seriously…