04.11.10 Net Neutrality Crucial to Combatting Corporate Censorship
One reader (full disclosure: my father) asked for some explanation of the recent federal court ruling negating the FCC’s regulation of Comcast’s internet service. As I attempt to answer his inquiry, I state up front that I am no expert on any of this. To the extent that I have any knowledge at all in the realm of FCC regulation, it comes largely from reading the newspaper. So, I encourage readers to correct factual inaccuracies and add nuance.
The basic issue is whether US internet service providers (“ISPs,” of which, Comcast is the largest) are allowed to discriminate against certain kinds of content flowing through the “pipes” they provide. Proponents of “net neutrality,” argue against this privilege. One fear is that corporate interference in what travels through their pipes might favor their own content. For example, if Comcast and NBC merge (as they are trying to do), the former might allow NBC programs to travel faster through its pipes than content developed by competitors.
Even more chilling is the idea that these huge corporations will end up becoming their own Chinas, blocking political or artistic speech they disagree with or just plain don’t like. At least one example of this has already taken place: when Verizon Wireless prevented NARAL members from transmitting text messages over its network in 2007.
Though progressives and techies line up solidly in solidly in favor of net neutrality, this is not just a fight of the little guy against the big guys, since two major players on that side of the argument are Google and Microsoft, whose search engines and advertising revenues could be severely harmed by a “walled-off” internet.
In August 2008 the FCC ruled that Comcast could not block certain file-sharing sites from its subscribers. In October 2009, the FCC announced its intention to establish rules that would more broadly ensconce net neutrality as a governing principle. Last week’s court decision directly overturns the 2008 FCC action and throws into doubt net neutrality, in general.
Last week, I participated in the annual Nonprofit Technology Conference in Atlanta. Since nonprofit techies are a particularly progressive bunch and (as mentioned above) techies in general are hostile to the Comcasts of the world, there was plenty of hand-wringing about the impact of the court decision. Some at the conference, though, suggested there might be a silver lining. It appears the court simply decided that the FCC was overstepping its current rules by trying to regulate Comcast. If this is so, a 3-2 vote by the five-member FCC panel could to change its rules and, thereby, reinstitute the restraint on corporate censorship. The optimists in Atlanta held that recent events will light a fire under the FCC to do just that.
For its part, Comcast and other large ISPs claim (1) that they are only interested in blocking extremely large bandwidth applications, without regard to the nature of the content and (2) that government regulation will kill innovation and competition in the market.
If you believe #1, I have some nice swampland to sell you. As for #2, there is no competition in that market now, as huge ISPs simply gobble each other up and consumers rarely have more than one or two providers to choose from. If net neutrality is allowed to be killed once and for all, it will be another brick in the edifice of corporate control of government (think Citizens United), the media, and — indeed — society at large.