FOR SEVERAL years now, a debate has raged over the issue of “net neutrality,” pitting media reformers, digital libertarians, and “content” companies such as Amazon and Netflix against old-school telecommunication giants such as AT&T and Comcast, with the Federal Communications Commission serving as an erratic referee.
Sometime early this year, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia may settle the question when it decides the case of Verizon vs. the FCC. If the court decides in favor of Verizon, big telecom companies will have won the right to decide what digital content we can receive, especially when it comes to video and other bandwidth-intense media.
Simply put, the issue in the Verizon case is whether broadband internet will follow the “common carrier” precedent applied to telephone lines and the electricity grid or the model of cable TV. The common carrier principle guarantees equal access to necessary public utilities. Applied to the internet, this has meant that service providers simply supply the fiber-optic cable or wireless spectrum, give equal access to all content providers, and charge the final recipient of the data (you and me) a fee that covers the cost of maintaining an adequate network.
In the cable TV business model, the provider controls the network of fiber optic cable and the content that goes over it. The cable company decides which channels are included in the basic package, which (like HBO) are purchased separately, and which will be unavailable at any price. If you want Al Jazeera instead of Fox News, too bad—it’s a take it or leave it package.
As we geezers well remember, the first internet service providers used telephone lines, which fall under the common carrier principle. But as more content moved online, the demand grew for a consumer network that could handle more data, maybe one using fiber optic cable, like the one that the television companies already had running into most U.S. homes. So the cable companies became major internet providers, and they, of course, want to operate the way they always have, by assembling a package of information and entertainment sources and telling the rest of us to like it or lump it.
In 2010, the Obama-appointed FCC issued the “Open Internet Order,” which sought to establish net neutrality as the law of the land. But the Verizon suit doesn’t just challenge the justice and logic of the net neutrality rule; it claims that Congress has never given the FCC the authority to regulate internet service providers at all. But that’s not the biggest problem for the FCC. In 2002, the Bush-appointed commission actually declared that internet service providers were not “common carriers.” The Obama FCC’s 2010 order treats them as common carriers, but it did not rescind the Bush-era rule to the contrary.
Ultimately the problem here is that the telecom industry views the internet purely as a business. But in the U.S., the media through which political and cultural debate and exchange occur have always been treated as a public good. Our founding generation started a subsidized postal service that guaranteed cheap delivery of newspapers and magazines. When radio and then TV came along, we established the FCC to ensure that broadcasters served the public interest and set aside part of the broadcast spectrum for public and nonprofit use.
Very soon what we are still calling broadband internet will completely displace both print and broadcasting as the media through which our democracy functions. And so far, the FCC response has been muddled and spotty. We need bold action from Congress (well, maybe from the next Congress) to re-establish the primacy of the public interest in the digital sphere. If we don’t get it, the corporations and the courts will turn our free and untidy marketplace of ideas into yet another exclusive gated community.
Danny Duncan Collum teaches writing at Kentucky State University in Frankfort. He is the author of the novel White Boy.
Image: Socket for internet connection, Denis Rozhnovsky  / Shutterstock.com