What's Wrong with Privatizing the Internet?

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.

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.

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Sojourners Magazine December 2010
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