[In advance of IESE’s July 1st event in New York, the 1ST MEDIA AND ENTERTAINMENT Industry Forum, which brings together the world’s top experts on Net Neutrality, I present my position paper on this topic]
Until recently, most Americans felt assured of “Net Neutrality,” even if they’d never heard the term before. Under strict Net Neutrality, all data traffic flowing over the Internet would be treated equally, like calls made over the telephone system. Data requested when you enter a Web address would be delivered to your computer as fast as the infrastructure of the Internet allows. And with some technologically nuanced exceptions, that’s basically how the Internet in America has been functioning.
But on May 15, 2014 the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) proposed new rules that will allow Internet service providers (ISPs) to slow down or speed up data delivery to and from certain Web sites, effectively creating a two-speed Internet, one with a fast lane for those who can afford it and a slow lane for everybody else.
Net Neutrality’s defenders worry that in a two-speed Internet, the Web’s crucial smaller players like public media, the not-for-profit sector, and start-ups (the Googles and Amazons of tomorrow), would be unable to buy their way out of the slow lane, thus impoverishing American commerce and culture. The ISPs counter that they are within their rights to charge more in exchange for delivering better, faster service.
The struggle between the two sides is heating up, and FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, while making strong statements sympathetic to Net Neutrality, remains unwilling to use his full regulatory power to back up his rhetoric. As of this writing, the number of comments on this topic registered at www.fcc.gov is closing in on fifteen thousand, more than forty-four times the amount for the next-most-commented-on topic.
The technical issues involved and the likely regulatory outcome of the net neutrality debate are way too complex to fully hash out here. Official statements from some of Silicon Valley’s biggest firms imply that even they don’t fully understand everything that’s going on.
What’s most important is the intensity and reach of the Net Neutrality debate itself. It is a signal of how colossally important the Internet has become to American life.
What we’re witnessing in this debate is nothing less than the struggle to determine the rules for our new dominant communications medium. It’s not unlike 1934, when Congress passed the Telecommunications Act, creating the FCC. Radio had already been around for some time in America. The first commercial radio broadcast had come out of Pittsburgh in 1920, and amateur radio enthusiasts, like the Internet’s earliest inhabitants, had been tinkering with the new technology since the turn of the century. Like the FCC’s newly proposed Open Internet Rules, the Telecommunications Act of 1934 was an attempt to agree on a set of rules for an already thriving, but chaotic and rapidly expanding new technology.
What the 1934 Act totally failed to do was to carve out any territory for the public interest in the new broadcasting landscape. It wouldn’t be until 1971, fifty years after the start of commercial radio and nearly thirty years after the start of commercial TV, that PBS and NPR would be on the air. In contrast, the BBC had been established as a public interest corporation way back in 1922.
We can’t afford to fall so far behind again in creating a durable public interest equivalent for the Internet, especially when Internet access in the rest of the developed world is on average faster, less expensive, more widely available, and almost universally “Net Neutral.”
Since it looks like we’re heading toward some form of a two-speed American Internet, why not take some of what the big players will be paying to ISPs for a fast track to consumers and use the money to make sure public media, not-for-profits, and tech innovators get bailed out of the slow lane?
There is strong precedent for this sort of provision. Residential telephone service, especially in rural areas, has long been subsidized in the US by the higher phone bills charged to businesses, as well as by small charges tacked onto everybody’s phone bill. The Connect America Fund (CAF), managed by the FCC, already exists to help build out Internet connections to schools and rural areas. In 2011, the CAF was $4.5 billion. As of 2012, 25.2% of American homes still don’t have access to the Internet.
At this key moment in deciding the rules of play for the American Internet, it is essential to demand that education, culture, and innovation don’t get left behind, as they did in TV and radio. The timing of demanding a meaningful provision for the public interest online is far more important than knowing exactly how the technological and legal details will be worked out. What’s at stake is whether the Internet’s full potential will be realized for all Americans, now and in the future.
As Edward R. Murrow said of television, “This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire. But it can only do so to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends.”