One of the best things about the Internet is that it is open. Like the mouse running round the pipes in your house, you can scurry wherever you’d like on the Web. Like a spider, you can spindle your own site, and like the public commons, no one owns the place–not you, me, not the government agency that ought to regulate it if only to preserve its openness, and not even Comcast, Verizon, or Time Warner, who are simply paid to provide the connection.
But what if, as a federal appeals court ruled in February, those three companies had the ability to charge sites more if they wanted quick content delivery, leaving people clicking on other sites staring at the spinning circle or rainbow wheel waiting for them to load?
The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals held that instead of being required to treat all sites in “roughly the same way”—the principle called “Net neutrality”—Internet service providers could charge different prices for different levels of service, and could also choose to block or slow specific sites or certain kinds of sites. This means that the Internet’s big and well-established sites, like Google, Facebook, Netflix, and Twitter, would have a huge advantage over people trying to build up sites for their small business, to gather a readership as a blogger, or to find support for their crowdsourcing project. It might even hurt moderately well-established sites like Reddit, Kickstarter, Etsy, Vimeo, and Tumblr.
It would also “undermine citizen media compared to corporate media,” says Kevin Zeese of Popular Resistance, one of the groups organizing a protest at the Federal Communications Commission hearing on the issue Dec. 11. Instead of everyone being able to receive alerts about the protests around Michael Brown’s death, to read and write posts, and have dialogues on social-networking sites all at the same time at the same pace, citizens and activists would not be able to spread the word as quickly or as far, to help rally support and keep movements going forward.
“Our communities rely on the Internet to speak without a corporate filter, and to be able to organize and hold public officials and corporations accountable,” the Color of Change Web site says. “But if these companies succeed, a few major corporations would control which voices are heard most easily, and it would be much harder for grass-roots groups, individuals, and small businesses to compete with large corporations and well-funded special interests.”
The key legal issue is whether the Internet is considered a “common carrier” like telephone wires, a public utility required to provide equal access to all customers, or an “information service” like a newspaper, which is not. In 2002, under the Bush administration, the FCC reclassified it as an information service. “Prior to that it was a common carrier,” says Zeese.
“What the court said was because it’s no longer in Title II [which had before classified the Internet as a public utility under the Communications Act of 1934], the FCC does not have the legal authority anymore to put in place Net neutrality rules. They can only do that if the Internet was reclassified as a common carrier under Title II. So that’s the reason why Net neutrality activists are pushing for reclassification. The court made it clear we have to reclassify.”
In a digital age, the Internet is the prime mover of information and publisher of voices. In social, civic, political, and economic spheres, our scale of awareness, our relevance and impact, depend on access to an open Internet. Without equal and open access, people will have a much harder time interacting and organizing or sustaining movements with the same grass-roots power or in the same spontaneous way.
Even without slashing Net neutrality, there is already a “digital divide” in America. According to a Census Bureau, in 2013 about 26% of American households did not have access to the Internet. These people tend to be poorer or live in rural areas where it is less profitable to build Internet infrastructure. It does not help that the 1996 Telecommunications Act watered down regulations on cable and telecom companies, which provide broadband service. Although the intent was to foster competition, its effect was to encourage the development of monopolies and duopolies.
Companies like Comcast, Verizon, and Time Warner had the ability to divide up markets or merge interests where they had infrastructure in the same area. The proposed merger of Comcast and Time Warner would make matters worse, says Zeese. “That kind of monopolistic power is preventing access in poor and rural communities. We believe that kind of access is essential, and we see that service being more likely when there is a publicly controlled Internet, as we see in Chattanooga, Tennessee.”
Chattanooga has created a robust public utility to provide Internet service, and it is faster than most of the service provided by corporations in the rest of the nation. Some states, however, have laws that prevent localities from doing that, says Zeese. “One of things the FCC is doing right,” he says, ”is they are currently recommending that all those barriers to public Internet service be removed, something that [FCC chair Tom] Wheeler and I agree on. Congress can push on this too, although there is always the pushback from the telecom and broadband lobbying power. After we win the battle on Net neutrality, then we will push for the battle to break up monopolies and expand equal access for all.”
While President Barack Obama released a statement in support of Net neutrality in November, following an outpouring of public comments submitted to the FCC online, the FCC is an independent agency, so it must be persuaded to designate Internet service providers as common carriers. Wheeler is a former lobbyist for cable companies. He recently said he is hoping to create a “hybrid” solution, one that would balance both public concerns and those of the cable/telecom companies. In this system, “retail service” customers would be subject to having to pay tiered prices to Internet service providers. However, ISPs would be redesignated as a common carrier for “back-end service” provided to content companies.
This is a half-baked version of Net neutrality. “My hope is that with the hybrid plan, there has been such a negative response to it including the President, that it doesn’t seem like it will go forward,” says Zeese. “With the campaign going on the last seven months, we’ve done a great job of moving the FCC into a position where they initially said it was impossible to reclassify, and now it looks inevitable that there will be some kind of reclassification.” The FCC will not vote on the hybrid plan at the Dec. 11 meeting, “It’s good that our pressure forced the FCC to drop their weak rules,” says PopularResistance.org, “but it is bad that the delay gives the Giant Telecoms more time to push for loopholes and back doors and to spread their false information.”