For a while it looked like the battle for "Net neutrality" was won when President Obama appointed his own chair of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Obama was solidly committed to the principle that the Internet pipelines must remain open and accessible to all legal content, and firmly against telecom industry schemes that would provide top-speed service for fee-paying content providers and put non-paying providers on a slower track. But, the president’s good intentions aside, the Net neutrality issue is now more unsettled than ever.
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In April 2010, in a case brought by the cable TV giant Comcast, a federal court ruled that the FCC has no jurisdiction over the broadband Internet business. At that point the FCC should have asked Congress to step in and decide the question once and for all. Instead, Obama’s FCC chair, Julius Genachowski, convened a series of private negotiating sessions that included representatives of Verizon, AT&T, Google, Skype, and others. According to a Sept. 8 story on AOL's DailyFinance.com, the talks collapsed when the two biggest gorillas in the room, Google and Verizon, announced their own bilateral "compromise" on Net neutrality.
The Google-Verizon proposal is going nowhere at the moment, but it provides an important glimpse into how the most powerful people in the business see the future. Their proposal would preserve Net neutrality for the hard-wired Internet (the one delivered mostly by cable companies), but would not apply it to wireless networks. Verizon, of course, is a major wireless provider, and wireless is the future of the industry. Verizon runs its new 4G wireless network on airwaves formerly used for analog TV signals. That broadcast spectrum was sold at auction by the federal government in 2008, with open access as a condition of the sale.
In addition, the Google-Verizon plan would establish a separate category of Internet service called "managed services." DailyFinance's Sam Gustin called this "a nonpublic, superfast network that companies could use to deliver prioritized content -- for a price."
The private Net isn't here yet. For now, Google CEO Eric Schmidt continues to pledge his troth to the "public Internet." But the very phrase implies the existence of another one. And, in 21st century America, we all know what happens to things, such as highways, that are considered "public." They get neglected, abused, and degraded until bridges start collapsing; then we "privatize" them.
Of course, this isn't just a story about Google and Verizon ganging up to stab Comcast in the back. It's also a story about the future of democracy, which requires the free flow of information and access to the public square, even -- no, especially -- for minority perspectives. And it’s a story about social justice. We are headed toward an era with one Net for the poor and another for the rich. It will be a world in which information and access to economic opportunity are available to those who can afford to pay, and closed to those who can't; a society not just stratified, but segregated, by economic class.
For Christians this is ultimately a story about our common responsibility for the goods of creation. This is especially true when the debate turns to the allocation of the wireless spectrum. The electromagnetic spectrum is part of creation, made accessible by human ingenuity -- just like water in aquifers that we reach by drilling wells. No person or corporation has a right to monopolize either resource for private gain. It's a resource to be used for the common good. We need a communications policy that will use the wireless spectrum and other public resources to spread the benefits of new technology as broadly as possible. That task can’t be left to the private market, and, apparently, it can't be left to the Obama administration either.
Danny Duncan Collum, a Sojourners contributing writer, teaches writing at Kentucky State University in Frankfort, Kentucky.