THE CONTROVERSY over net neutrality has come back to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) where it began, and the commissioners need to hear, immediately, one simple message from ordinary citizens: “Reclassify broadband internet as a telecommunications service.”
You don’t really even need to know what those seven words mean. Just say them—by phone, email, fax, or carrier pigeon—until the commissioners get the idea.
That imperative sentence is aimed at preventing a policy shift that could turn our information superhighway into a fast, expensive toll road for the wealthy and force ordinary citizens onto a two-lane frontage road, with lots of traffic lights.
Net neutrality, as you may recall, is the principle that internet service providers—the companies that own the cable or the wireless frequencies that bring the internet to your device—should treat all digital content the same. Comcast shouldn’t block Amazon Prime to force you into its own video-on-demand service, and Verizon shouldn’t let Netflix pay more to get higher download speeds than its competitors. As a corollary, this means that independent filmmakers and video journalists have the same access to the online audience that the corporate big boys have.
FCC appointees in the first Obama term made net neutrality the rule of the digital roadway, but they did it using a regulatory framework inherited from the Bush II FCC that treated broadband internet as an “information service” rather than a telecommunications service. In January, a U.S. Court of Appeals found that, under the “information services” classification, broadband service companies should be free to contract with content providers for the use of their cables and wireless frequencies. The judges broadly hinted that if the FCC wanted net neutrality, it could simply reclassify broadband service as a utility. The commissioners met to reconsider, and while they talked, Netflix immediately cut deals with both Verizon and Comcast to pay for faster service.
The legal distinction between an “information service” and a “telecommunications service” is crucial. Telecommunications services are considered public utilities—like landline phone service was when it emerged in the 20th century. Back then the FCC used a combination of regulations, incentives, and subsidies to get phone service extended to practically every household in America and keep the basic service affordable for almost everyone.
Broadband internet has become the kind of necessity that home phone service once was, and that same policy approach is needed. Comcast, AT&T, Verizon, etc. are right when they say that the public demand for streaming video requires new infrastructure. New cable needs to be laid and new wireless frequencies opened up. But who will pay for it? If, as the service providers are demanding, the content companies pay, only corporate content will be seen. If the service providers pay, they will pass the charge on to us, the customers, in our monthly bill. The answer is the same as it once was for telephone service. The service-providing companies must pay for the infrastructure. They charge their customers for it, but the federal government puts in a subsidy to keep the service affordable for lower-income people. That way you get a free marketplace of ideas and relative equality of access; both democracy and social justice are served.
But in its proposal issued this May, the FCC promised to maintain net neutrality while allowing pay-for-play deals on a case-by-case basis. After a storm of public protest, FCC chair Tom Wheeler inserted language into the proposal asking for public and industry input on the question of reclassifying broadband service.
The FCC will hear comments on the issue throughout the summer and take it up again in the fall. Hence the urgent need for that seven-word message. Free Press, a leading media reform advocacy organization, makes it easy for you to raise your voice—visit freepress.net/action.
Danny Duncan Collum, author of the novel White Boy, teaches writing at Kentucky State University in Frankfort.
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