FCC: Caught in the Corporate Net

neutral 1On May 15th, 2014 there will be a notice of proposed rulemaking issued to the public that Senator Al Franken says “is the free speech issue of our time.” These rules aren’t being proposed by any court or justice department, but instead by the fellas at the freaking FCC, as Peter Griffin refers to them. Before you scoff at Al Franken’s remark, let’s take a closer look at the history of printed information and see why the Senator is not alone.

Since the origin of printed press, those in power have looked for ways to limit the flow of information to the masses. It was once churches in a position of power that deemed content unacceptable, ordering book burnings and punishing or even executing authors. If you put out an idea that was against the churches beliefs, you were quite simply putting yourself in great danger. That same concept has evolved and continued into more modern times, with access to media constantly being limited through some form or another in the interest of protecting or projecting specific ideologies. In the 80’s when Reagan got rid of the Fairness Doctrine we saw a major shift in radio and television media, moving towards content control lying only in the hands of a few. The guarantee that television stations had to represent multiple viewpoints was no longer, and the media landscape of today began to take shape. In that reality, we see 99 percent of all media content worldwide through cable, airwaves, and newspapers controlled by just 10 companies.

Since the introduction of the internet the flow of information has changed dramatically from anything we have seen previously. The internet revolutionized small businesses the world over, giving opportunity and the ability to communicate and display products and ideas to an infinitely large market. To this day, at least in America, the internet has been a tool of success; one that was originally funded through tax money, and that has maintained a level of equality to all of its billions of users, both big and small alike. Next week the FCC plans to release a set of proposed rules to regulate the internet as we move forward into the unknown future. The proposed regulations will be open to public commentary for a 30 day period, after which they will be adjusted accordingly and written into legislation, being implemented within the year. While the FCC chairman maintains that the new regulations are “in the best interest of the people,” many are skeptical and taking a defensive stance against what could be the beginning of the end of net neutrality.

The term net neutrality is relatively simple to understand. Former Wired writer Ryan Singel explains it as “the simple concept that the company that provides you internet access on your phone and at your house should be a utility — like a phone company. It should deliver you the information you ask for at the speed you are promised without playing favorites or blocking or degrading services.” Although the proposed rules have yet to be released, a number of the regulations have been leaked to media sources. The big buzz is surrounding what is being called a “pay-to-play” system. This is a concept that creates what can be called a “fast-lane” of the internet. This is the system that the big corporations pay to have access to. This is the system that directly threatens the ability of the internet to be used as a tool by everyone in the same fashion. Instead those with the money to put their content in the fast lane have an advantage that can materialize into enormous profits, while smaller scale companies that can’t afford the expense lose out. Not only do they lose out on faster internet service, but they in turn lose out on business opportunities. More customers are turned away from the slower speeds, and instead head towards websites like Amazon or Netflix. As Senator Franken put it, “We cannot allow the FCC to implement a pay-to-play system that silences our voices, and amplifies that of big corporate interests.”

The FCC Chairman has spoken out this week to defend his actions as being in the interest of the people, but his statement reads more like a list of excuses. One of the main critiques is that the new regulations will permit a certain level of discrimination from network providers, and the Chairman’s response was vague in addressing this major concern. The ability for a network provider to speed up or slow down content based on preference is incredibly threatening to the free flow of ideas. Imagine if a provider had the capability to slow download speeds or streaming speeds for traffic that they don’t benefit from financially, for websites they don’t approve of, or even for their competition. At the same time, they could promote content from partners and affiliate companies, allowing it to run at higher speeds and in turn generating greater profit. Tim Wu, a professor at Columbia Law School who is credited with the term “net neutrality” says “This is what one might call a net-discrimination rule, and, if enacted, it will profoundly change the Internet as a platform for free speech and small-scale innovation. It threatens to make the Internet just like everything else in American society: unequal in a way that deeply threatens our long-term prosperity.”

The Chairman has also defended that his proposal intends to allow “no unreasonable discrimination,” stating that it would require providers to offer the same terms to all. Right away skepticism arises with what constitutes “unreasonable,” and his statement simply says that internet service providers may not favor traffic from affiliated entities. However, it does not exclude favoring traffic in general for reasons of political content, video content, or any other reason than a direct business affiliation. Even more confusing are the legal issues with claiming that all providers must offer the same terms. In a recent court ruling, the FCC was told they must allow cable and phone companies (internet providers) to charge similarly situated clients completely different prices. Also, they are explicitly given permission to charge for an exclusive internet fast lane, limiting all other providers to a more standard service.

At first glance it would seem that the FCC is legally bound to provide preferential treatment to those that are capable of paying, but this is really just a loophole that the court pointed out, and there is a simple way around this. One that proponents of net neutrality have been advocating for since 2006. If the FCC instead designated internet service providers as “common carriers,” essentially turning them into a utility of sorts, they would no longer be restricted in limiting prices. In the same way that electricity is an even playing field, exactly the same speed and cost for Walmart as it is for Rainbow Drive Inn, internet would be provided as a necessary service. And necessary is exactly what the internet has become to virtually every business or personal endeavor. It’s no longer a luxury, but an essential functioning aspect of every transaction and every aspect of communication. Broadband networks aren’t yet a utility, but they are the foundation of our economy. BitTorrent CEO Eric Klinker says that “For technologists and entrepreneurs alike this is a worst-case scenario. Creating a fast lane for those that can afford it is by its very definition discrimination.”

In America we have become used to the internet as a form of uncensored access to information. This is truly the flagship of what the internet is, and why it has created so many ideas, so many businesses, and so many partnerships worldwide that otherwise never could have existed. While the restrictions proposed don’t constitute internet censorship in the same way that North Korea or China experience, the end result is one that leads us in that direction. Media in general has become more and more politically controlled, and we see the results of that. Internet is our freedom from right and left. Internet is the ability to read what is in the middle and what lies on the extremes. The FCC Chairman acknowledges the risk of what could happen, saying “the possibility that exercises of economic power or of ideological preference by dominant network firms will diminish the value of the Internet to some or all segments of our society” does exist. He acknowledges this flaw, yet continues to push for these restrictions right now. In his public statement he makes another announcement that he wants to implement new rules and restrictions soon, and that “opening an entirely new approach…just invites delay.” He also offers up that having the “fast lane” is better than nothing, and the other options on the table aren’t that great anyways.

With just 30 days for public input and opinion on how the future of the greatest technological invention of our time plays out, there is no better moment to use your voice and speak out against internet discrimination. We deserve to have the same platform available to everyone, regardless of economic prowess or affiliations. The consequences of limiting access to what is perhaps the most important tool for the free flow of ideas and innovation are undeniable, and giving media giants a sports car while the rest of us are stuck with horse and carriage only leaves us more vulnerable and out of control.

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