Ben Charlson: Changing policy, more control

Wednesday, January 3, 2018 - 6:48pm

In the months since President Donald Trump’s inauguration, various policy decisions and comments by the nation’s leader have called into question the country’s status as a role model for democracy. Through big legislation proposals in the areas of immigration and tax code, it has become evident that the power structure of the United States is slowly shifting to favor the privileged and neglect those without a voice.

But this power controversy throughout Trump’s term is not limited to hypersensitive topics like immigration and health care alone — it has manifested itself in seemingly insignificant laws that have fairly pertinent consequences.

On Dec. 14, the Federal Communications Commission voted to overturn the 2015 regulations put in place by President Barack Obama that mandated net neutrality across the internet.

In what Ajit Pai, Trump-appointed chairman of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, called an attempt to stop the government from “micromanaging the internet,” the repeal on regulations gives internet service providers significantly more power over what is available and for what price on the web, potentially hampering the current freedom consumers have to surf the internet.

Only two days later, reports surfaced that Trump had informed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention of a supposed banned word list for official documents in the 2019 fiscal year, including pressing terms like “diversity,” “science-based” and “transgender.”

Though the validity of the report remains a topic of conversation, the fact that such allegations would surface from a CDC official speaks to the dangerous direction the country is headed in terms of censorship and the relationship between the government and the media. The net neutrality and CDC policies both highlight Trump’s desire to take the power from the many to the few, and in the process increase his own control over the country.

Net neutrality, in its simplest form, is a mandate that prohibits internet services from favoring certain websites or services in order to further their own business interests.

For example, if a customer purchases internet access through Comcast, he or she has as much freedom to access Google as Netflix or Hulu. However, if Comcast is able to charge more for specialized, high-demand internet services, they will do so in order to make their own streaming services more attractive — slowing down and making popular websites more expensive.

Apart from the increased cost and inconvenience accrued by consumers because of net neutrality’s repeal, the action by the FCC reveals the detrimental state of the government under Trump’s leadership and the diminishing power of the everyday American citizen.

During both Obama and Trump’s respective terms, the American public voiced their concern at the prospect of repealing net neutrality, highlighted in a University of Maryland report claiming that 83 percent of voters rejected the FCC’s new legislation.

On a more macro level, Obama declared net neutrality to be a driving force in “protecting innovation and creating a level playing field for the next generation of entrepreneurs.”

Yet even more important than his acknowledgement of the internet’s capability to facilitate business growth and creativity is his recognition of internet as a manifestation of democracy. Shortly after the FCC upheld net neutrality regulations in 2015, Obama stated that “nothing can stand in the way of millions of voices calling for change,” referring to the numerous petitions sent to the FCC and Congress detailing the importance of freedom on the internet.

Trump clearly does not share the same values.

Where Obama highlighted the importance of democracy and individual freedom in his support of net neutrality, Trump exposed his desire to place the power of the internet — one of the most instrumental tools for political and social discourse in the 21st century — in the hands of the few. And in doing so, he illuminates his desire to gain control over the millions of voices crying out across the country.

With the surfacing of Trump’s alleged banned words report to the CDC only a few days after the FCC repeal, public fear of a diminishing democracy grew. The report centers on a list of seven words that Trump deemed inappropriate or too controversial for the CDC to publish, including factual and unbiased terms like “science-based” and “evidence-based.”

At first glance, the egregiousness of Trump’s report seems almost comical and hard to believe.

Though the CDC has pushed back against the legitimacy of this claim, the pure existence of such allegations against Trump speak not only to his deceitful character, but to his desire for censorship and control.

While it would be a gross exaggeration to liken the state of this country to censored dictatorships like that of North Korea, seeds of such a power structure can be seen in Trump’s recent policy choices.

One such example lies within the lack of attention given to the recent net neutrality legislation, as inadequate media coverage is an infamous characteristic of North Korea’s dictatorship. Similar to how Kim Jong-Un’s regime has restricted internet access to “a small section of the elite,” the FCC’s new policy has the same motive albeit to a much lesser extent — limiting the capacity of the internet based on the desires of a few large companies.

Should Trump continue to censor the content given to the public while at the same time limiting the total amount of information available, this sets a dangerous precedent for the future of individual freedoms as it relates to media and information sharing.

And while it might be a few months or years before the average American sees tangible consequences from Trump’s recent policy, the danger lies more in principle than practicality.

As the power in the country becomes more concentrated, it may be another four years before the masses regain control and truly make their voices heard.

Ben Charlson can be reached at bencharl@umich.edu.