If one thing defines the Internet, it’s that everyone has equal access to post on it. But depending on what the Federal Communications Commission does next, we could see what a former FCC chairman calls “the corporate abrogation of free speech.”
The folks who provide your Internet service, like AT&T, Comcast and Verizon want to be allowed to charge some content providers like Netflix and Amazon more than other, smaller ones in return for giving their data faster transmission speeds. That could lead to smaller users being squeezed out, crushing competition and consumer choice in what ought to be an open marketplace.
A federal appeals court ruling in January made this possible by defying the net neutrality principle set out in a 2010 FCC Open Internet order – that all data be processed and charged the same. That FCC provision has required that service providers be transparent on how they handle network congestion, that they don’t block access to legal content and don’t discriminate against some providers to the benefit of others. The court let the first rule stand but struck down the others.
FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, an Obama appointee, has proposed new rules that would allow preferential treatment for certain companies while requiring a baseline of service to others. The president himself says he supports net neutrality, and he’s urging that broadband Internet service be reclassified as a utility. “Implementing gatekeepers and “toll roads,” said Obama in a videotaped message, would “end the Internet as we know it.”
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Yet Obama should have known this would be the result of choosing Wheeler, a former lobbyist for cable TV. It’s not as if the risk hadn’t been brought to the president’s attention. As a presidential candidate, Obama was asked during a visit to Iowa’s Coe College in 2007 if he’d make net neutrality a priority and only appoint FCC commissioners who support it. The president said he would. Yet all three of his appointees to the five-member commission favor the two-tiered system, and now there’s nothing the president can do about it except use the bully pulpit. The FCC is an independent agency.
Under Title II of the Telecommunications Act, the FCC could reclassify broadband as a telecommunications service. But broadband companies AT&T, Verizon and Comcast have been spending vast sums of money to lobby members of Congress against that. Comcast alone has spent $16.4 million this year, more than any business except the maker of the B-2 bomber. On the other side, Google, a content provider that favors net neutrality, has also spent millions in campaign donations and lobbying.
The politics of this are interesting. While Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas calls net neutrality the “Obamacare for the Internet,” and fellow Republican House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio (who accepted nearly $108,000 in Comcast contributions) said such regulation would destroy innovation and entrepreneurship, their constituents don’t necessarily agree. A poll by the Internet Freedom Business Alliance, which supports net neutrality, put the question to voters who call themselves very conservative, and 83 percent expressed concern about service providers being able to influence content online. The same percentage thought Congress should ensure that cable companies don’t reduce Internet equality by charging some content companies for speedier access. And 72 percent said they fear the influence big service providers have over elected officials.
Maybe this is an issue on which Republicans and Democrats can come together. Former FCC Commissioner Michael Copps has warned that unless the FCC moves to reclassify, the court’s decision would end the “free, open, and uncensored Internet that we have come to rely on.” Some 4 million people have sent comments to the FCC, most of them demanding net neutrality. The issue really took off recently when comedian John Oliver devoted a segment of his weekly cable-TV show to it, urging people to write the FCC. So many did that the website crashed for a while.
The grassroots group MoveOn.com is urging its supporters to press for reclassifying broadband Internet as a telecommunications service by contacting members of Congress of both parties and, among other things, “stiffening the spines of Democrats.” But it acknowledges Congress can’t block the FCC from setting policy. It can only take away its funding and authority.
It’s true that capitalism allows for two-tiered systems for just about everything business controls. People with means can fly first class and pay for airport privacy kiosks to stretch their legs while others settle themselves onto airport chairs or the floor. Parents with means can send their kids to private schools and learning centers. In some places, doctors will accept fees to be put on retainer by wealthier patients, who are moved to the front of the line when seeking appointments. But the Internet is as much a public utility as garbage pickup or water, and public access shouldn’t be for sale to the highest bidder.
Rekha Basu is a columnist for the Des Moines Register. Readers may send her email at email@example.com.