Most people still aren’t noticing, but just below the surface of U.S. politics, a titanic struggle is being waged over the future of the Internet, and, ultimately, over the soul of American politics and culture.
The dark side won the latest round in this battle when, on April 6, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled in favor of Comcast in its suit challenging the Federal Communication Commission’s authority to enforce “net neutrality” rules. Comcast, a mammoth cable TV and Internet service provider, was caught secretly blocking its customers’ access to certain Web sites. A customer’s connection simply turned off whenever he or she tried to visit, for example, BitTorrent. That may sound like something that could only happen in China, but it’s not. In this case Comcast’s motives were commercial, not political. But without regulation, political censorship by giant telecom companies could happen here. Or, more likely, dissident and alternative voices will simply be marginalized by their inability to “pay to play.”
The FCC censured Comcast for violating free access rules. But the court found that the FCC had no legal standing to make those kinds of rules. As a result, as of now, no one is overseeing the operation of the broadband Internet business. Comcast’s legal victory should force either the FCC or the Congress to commit, once and for all, to a firm legal structure for regulating Internet service providers. But this is something that policymakers at all levels have been reluctant to do.
This is because a vague digital libertarianism has dominated our thinking in the first two decades of the Web era. You could hear it in any number of formulations—from “information wants to be free” to “don’t kill the goose that lays the golden egg.” From its roots in the Pentagon’s emergency communications infrastructure, the worldwide network spread and grew through an unplanned and decentralized process that thrilled disciples of Ayn Rand and Timothy Leary alike. To this day you can hear Web visionaries spout mumbo-jumbo about the network “coming alive.”
As a result, policymakers were terrified of tampering with the Web. Nobody wanted to go down in history as the fool who ruined the Internet, so it remained a free market oasis—mostly unregulated and untaxed. That left consumers prey to Nigerian scams and nonstop spam, and opened new frontiers for gambling and porn, but otherwise it worked pretty well. However, with the arrival of widespread broadband access, the Web is about to displace television as the most important mass entertainment platform. That means big, big money. In this environment, the old laissez-faire approach will end with an Internet controlled by a few digital robber barons.
Philadelphia-based Comcast is positioning itself to be the Standard Oil of the Web—the biggest and meanest monopoly player in the market. It began in the cable TV business, and its ownership of all those hundreds of miles of fiber-optic cable made it one of the most important companies in the country when consumer demand for broadband service arrived.
Comcast and similar companies seem to view their new Internet business as directly analogous to cable TV. They want “content” producers (digital movie, TV, music, or information providers) to pay a fee for access to millions of Comcast households, and they want their customers to be limited to that select menu of paying providers. That’s not the Internet that any of us signed up for, but—without public oversight reining in commercial interests—it may someday be the only one we have left.
Danny Duncan Collum, a Sojourners contributing writer, teaches writing at Kentucky State University in Frankfort, Kentucky.