By Jeff Blevins
Network neutrality is the idea that Internet providers should allow us access to all information and content online, whatever websites and services we want. However, a new draft proposal by the Federal Communications Commission set for a vote today that promises to preserve network neutrality might actually do more harm than good.
While the FCC proposal is said to include language that consumers are entitled to access the content, applications and services of their choice, or to have explained to them why they don’t have that choice (otherwise known as “transparency”), it stops far short of having any meaningful effect. Since it’s easier, and more profitable, not to provide all content, it is likely that transparency will prevail. And unfortunately, “transparency” in practice means that Internet service providers only have to put the things we don’t like in the fine print (that is, those “terms of service”‘ agreements that we all tend to ignore, and frankly, don’t understand).
There are other shortcomings as well. The FCC’s proposal would only apply to wire line broadband, which is the kind of Internet access most of us have in our homes, and would exempt wireless providers (e.g., mobile networks, such as Verizon, Sprint, etc.), who would be free to discriminate against content, applications and services as they see fit (so long as it’s in the fine print). For this growing group of Internet users, their costs would increase, as mobile Internet providers would be able to add new fees and charge for access to particular applications, such as Facebook and YouTube. This would hit us all where it hurts the most in this sluggish economy.
Allowing Internet providers to charge some businesses more than others for access to their customers threatens entrepreneurs and small business, the very entities we should be protecting. Rural educational institutions, libraries, community journalists, family farms and others could be limited by their ability to pay for faster delivery. Small businesses that want to build their web presence to better market their products and services may be limited (or shut out altogether) by Internet providers that offer competing wares.
Internet providers are clearly “common carriers” (like trains, mail and telephones) and, as such, can and should be forced by the government to behave in ways that benefit all of us. The FCC’s current proposal ignores their common carrier status and is therefore destined to fail.
Opponents of net neutrality have made a rather hysterical and false argument that net neutrality is about a big government takeover of the Internet, and that the FCC would determine content. Nothing could be further from the truth as net neutrality would ensure that all voices (content and services) would be given a platform on the medium and allow entrepreneurial start-ups and innovators to compete with well-established content and service providers.
The big telecom companies have claimed network neutrality violates their First Amendment rights by limiting their ability to act as editor of our online experience. But free speech is a two-way street and includes access to information. The Internet is the electronic equivalent of a library, and no one questions that all, at least all adults, should have unfettered access to every book on the shelf.
In perhaps the first significant challenge to regulate speech on the Internet, a federal court declared in 1996 that the Internet is the “most participatory form of mass speech yet developed,” and thus “deserves the highest protection from government intrusion.” However, what threatens the Internet’s valuable democratic and participatory nature now isn’t the government, but corporate censorship. Without network neutrality, corporate greed may gradually become the gatekeeper of our free and open Internet and we may all end up paying for it in the end.