No Fast Lanes for the Few

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This post was first published by the Benton Foundation and cross-posted at Common Cause.

In this Dec. 3, 2009 file photo, a sign outside the Comcast Center, left, is shown in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, file)
In this Dec. 3, 2009 file photo, a sign outside the Comcast Center, left, is shown in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Just about everybody understands the Internet to be the most opportunity-creating tool of our time. The question now is opportunity for whom? Is the Net going to be the tool of the many that helps us all live better — or will it be the playground of the privileged few that only widens the many divides that are creating a shamefully stratified and unequal America? Are we heading toward an online future with fast lanes for the 1% and slow lanes for the 99%?

Well, it’s decision time. Now. New Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Tom Wheeler is proposing reworked “Network neutrality” rules. The big Internet service providers took the old ones to court and had them thrown out. (BTW, can we please get rid of that anemic “Network neutrality” moniker for what is actually the most important communications challenge facing us? How about “Net freedom” instead?) Whatever you call it, the decisions to be voted on by the FCC between now and the end of the year will set the course for how the Internet develops for years to come — maybe for a generation. That is why we all need to be involved in the outcome. Not just five commissioners at a federal agency, but every citizen whose future rides on the decisions that are about to be made. In short, our Internet future is now.

So far, public policy has worked dramatically and decisively against Net freedom. For openers, the FCC, in one of the weirdest decisions ever made by any agency anywhere, decided a decade ago that the broadband infrastructure on which the Internet rides wasn’t telecommunications at all and was therefore outside the consumer protections and common carriage requirements that are integral parts of the plain old telephone service we were all used to. Why? Because the big telecom companies overseeing the transition to new kinds of telephone services lobbied to be exempt from government-enforced consumer safeguards that provided universal service across the land, privacy safeguards, public safety protections and reasonable prices. Title II of the Communications Act requires these protections. But the giant telecoms had a better idea — better for them, that is. Just take broadband out of Title II and put it in an entirely different part of the statute where consumer protections didn’t exist. A majority at the FCC thought this was a swell idea, persuaded by the intense lobbying of the companies and perhaps also motivated by an ideology that most of us thought had disappeared a century ago.

The results have been devastating. Devastating for consumers, who had every right to expect that their new devices, when they came, would carry the same kinds of protections and benefits as their old ones. Devastating for potential competitors, who were unable to compete with telecom giants whose billion-dollar mergers and acquisitions the FCC kept on blessing. And devastating for the deployment of broadband, which was now exempt from meaningful public policy oversight. It is harsh reality that your country and mine is an also-ran among the nations of the world in getting high-speed, low-cost fiber broadband out to all its citizens. We rank somewhere between 15th and 55th, depending upon what is being measured: ubiquity of service, broadband speeds or prices per bit. Yes, I’m talking about the broadband Internet that was invented right here in the United States, developed and shepherded by government research and development. In half a generation, we’ve gone from broadband leader to broadband laggard, partly thanks to a business mentality that is totally preoccupied with quarterly reports and Wall Street ratings, and, even more importantly, to special interest government that allowed the most elemental public interest oversight to wither away.

That’s the essential background for understanding the Net freedom decision pending at the FCC. While the text of the chairman’s proposal is yet to be released, enough has been leaked that we know it is skewed against the Title II reclassification that is the clearest and cleanest way to go. It also appears that the proposed rules will permit giant Internet service providers like Verizon and AT&T to create fast lanes for their business partners and friends who can afford to pay what will inevitably be very heavy freight, while start-ups, innovators and potential competitors are priced off the express lane. The latter is called “paid prioritization” but in truth it is Net discrimination — discrimination on a medium that is capable of enhancing just about every aspect of every person’s life if only we learn how to ensure that it serves the common good. And you already know who will pay the bill for this Internet divide. Consumers, of course.

Democracy will pay, too. An Internet controlled and managed for the benefit of the “haves” and that rations the availability of the essential tools of the 21st century to everyone else discriminates against our rights as citizens as much, or more, as our rights as consumers. I believe most of us by now understand that finding jobs, caring for our health, educating our kids and conserving energy are increasingly online activities. But so is finding out what’s going on in our nation and the world, sharing our outlooks and opinions and nourishing a more robust civic dialogue. Endowing powerful ISPs and online companies with control over what we see and share on the Net is inimical to the health of our commonweal. If an ISP can favor those who pay the most, can block or slow-down those sites who refuse to play their game, can decide that some good cause or advocacy group they disagree with will be discriminated against, then we have short-circuited both the nourishing potential of the Internet and the rights of citizens to share in a communications revolution that should be, in truth, more about We, the People than it is about the privileged few.

The first step on the road to an online future that serves us all is for the FCC to get its pending proposals right. Classify broadband for the Title II communications it obviously is and prohibit fast-lane, slow-lane divides created for the commercial enrichment of a few. At the same time, the commission must step up to the plate and use the authority it has to preempt state laws that prohibit communities and municipalities from building their own broadband infrastructure instead of relying on ISPs that cherry-pick the country when they decide where to build and not build. And let’s go on from there to demand that the FCC finally finds the wisdom and the guts to say “No!” to all these never-ending mergers and acquisitions that are monopolizing the market, disadvantaging consumers and short-circuiting our democratic discourse.

But the first step won’t be taken by the commission unless you take a step first. The FCC needs to hear from you. It plans to make its proposal public on May 15th. Here are some action ideas. Contact the agency now and tell it that you expect a Net-friendly proposal going in. You can also sign the Common Cause petition calling for the Title II reclassification of broadband. Then there will be a period after the formal May 15 launch of the proceeding for the public to comment on it. So you can contact the FCC again after May 15 with comments and suggestions on the handiwork they actually propose and these will become part of the official record of the proceeding. Don’t leave these things for others for do. It’s up to each and every one of us. You depend more and more on the Net. Now the Net is depending on you.

Michael Copps is a former commissioner and acting chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, where he served from 2001–11. He serves on the board of Free Press and the Free Press Action Fund and is a special adviser to Common Cause. Follow him on Twitter: @coppsm.
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