It seems unlikely that President Trump’s internet base — the trolls and activists from 4chan, Reddit, Twitter, and elsewhere, whose “meme magic” (mostly cartoon frogs in red hats) helped the president dominate social media during the election — would be able to find much common ground with opponents of the new administration. The online “Trump Train” has a vituperative hatred for the snowflakes and SJWs of the Democratic Party, and there are no issues on which the meme magicians wouldn’t fall into lockstep behind the man they call “god-emperor.” Except, maybe, on one particular issue that falls close to home — the internet itself.
Last week, Donald Trump named the telecommunications lawyer Ajit Pai to run the Federal Communications Commission, the regulatory body that oversees telecom companies and common carriers. Pai was the ranking Republican commissioner under President Obama, so his rise is not particularly shocking — but Pai has stated many times over the years that he does not believe in the principle of net neutrality: the idea, essentially, that all traffic on the internet must be treated equally. If net neutrality isn’t mandated, internet-service providers could theoretically determine their customers’ ability to access certain websites or services — either by directly preventing access, or, more likely, by severely limiting or throttling speeds.
Net neutrality is baked into the free, open culture of the internet, and it’s long been popular a rallying point both for the tech companies, like Netflix and Reddit, that would have the most to lose without it, and for the many users that believe strongly in the principle of an open internet. Over the years, at moments when net neutrality has been threatened, hundreds of thousands of people have been mobilized to protect it, by lobbying the FCC and elected officials. It’s the rare issue that heavy internet users on the left and right can agree on.
And even if you wouldn’t expect the Redditors and channers who make up the Trump Train to support net neutrality by virtue of their heavy internet use, Trump’s most vocal online supporters have a clear interest in maintaining net neutrality — it’s a policy that helps guarantee that sites like Reddit, 4chan, and their even seedier cousins can be accessed by anyone. But standing up for net neutrality would also require them to criticize the god-emperor. There is no evidence that Trump really understands the issue, save for an ill-informed 2014 tweet.
To find out more about how internet advocates on the right feel about Pai, I spoke to Utsav Sanduja, the communications officer at Gab.ai, a Twitter/Reddit hybrid preferred by members of the alt-right following Twitter’s postelection crackdown. Sanduja was quick to assert that Gab’s 140,000 users fall across the political spectrum, but he did tell me that “we have a very pro-freedom stance” when it comes to individual internet users.
Gab users are united behind “four critical internet freedoms,” Sanduja told me. “The freedom to to access lawful content, the freedom to use applications, the freedom to attach personal devices to the network, and the freedom to obtain service-plan information.” These are, word for word, the four so-called “internet freedoms” that former FCC chair Michael Powell outlined in 2004, during the Bush administration. (For what it’s worth, Powell has characterized the FCC’s 2015 net-neutrality measures as too expansive.)
Sanduja wouldn’t commit Gab to a political stance, arguing that Pai’s actions on net neutrality were purely hypothetical (though I’d say that Pai has been pretty clear on his intent). Sanduja talked around coming out in favor of net neutrality, despite the fact that Gab’s philosophy is clearly aligned with it. Should Pai take concrete steps to dismantle it, Gab would likely try and organize its users to take action.
Earlier this month, Gab’s iOS app was rejected from the app store, after sitting in review for roughly a month. The future of the internet that net neutrality seeks to avoid is Apple’s walled garden on a larger scale: ISPs restricting content from users. If Trump-supporting Gab users believe that Apple is overstepping its bounds by moderating its app store too heavily, it’s not much of a leap to assume that they feel similarly about internet-service providers. Both are large, monopolistic platform holders that could potentially wield outsize power regarding what travels over their network. If Trump’s supporters value their personal liberties, then it would benefit them to be in favor of net neutrality, and to oppose Ajit Pai — even if they are hesitant to come out and actually admit as much.
Voat, the anti-political-correctness Reddit clone that popped up after Reddit started cleaning house, has numerous threads about Pai’s appointment. Most of them lie dormant, though occasionally users with names like Ghetto_Shitlord will show up to act as a voice of reason. A pro-Pai article submitted to Voat yesterday has two comments, one of which reads, “Unconvincing BS. This guy uses legalese to coverup his support for ISPs doing whatever they want.”
The clear silence surrounding Pai on Voat contrasts starkly with posts on net neutrality from a year and a half ago, when users were concerned about Congress and lobbyists launching a sneak attack.
Maybe the most sophisticated and dissenting opinions on net neutrality can be found on r/The_Donald, the main subreddit for discussion of Donald Trump and his policies, and where much of the “meme magic” was generated. For the most part, where an r/The_Donald member seems to fall on net neutrality has a lot to do with how well they understand the issue. To some, net neutrality represents government regulation of the private sector. That’s not necessarily incorrect, but even understood as regulation, net neutrality has clear benefits for the end user. This can be difficult to sort out and reconcile.
One r/The_Donald poster, DRRider, summed it up thusly:
If we do not allow “net neutrality”, we give control of the internet to the gatekeeping corporations such as Time Warner, AT&T and Comcast.
If we allow “net neutrality”, we hand over control of the internet to the government.
“Pick your poison,” they wrote. “Personally, I’d prefer the former since it’s more decentralized.” Except that, in this case, “decentralized” ISPs are still highly centralized geographically, and tend to hold near-monopolies in the areas they serve. Expecting uncontested ISPs to start innovating and improving their products, rather than holding users hostage, would be to ignore the entire history of commercial ISPs.
But for the most part, r/The_Donald users do seem to have a decent grasp on the question of net neutrality, and do recognize its importance. The hypothetical examples are like a mirror image of the liberal side of the internet. Multiple users fear that ISPs, which own mainstream news outlets (Comcast owns NBC, Time Warner owns CNN), will use a lack of net neutrality to push a liberal agenda onto internet customers. And while unlikely, there is a nonzero possibility of this happening if net neutrality is rolled back. That’s why preemptive net-neutrality regulations are important.
Or, in the words of NimbleNavigator931, “Privacy and net neutrality is a priority if we’re going to win the meme war in the long game.”