On February first, Washington DC was the scenario of probably the most important conversation on the Internet that is taking place these days. The case Mozilla v. FCC, which is being heard by the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, relaunched the conversation over net neutrality in the United States, a discussion that is vital for local journalism.
Net neutrality is a set of rules put forth during the Obama era that prevented Internet Service Providers (ISP) from discriminating between different sites. All content, all “packets” as the pieces of data that travel through the networks are called, had the same “rights” on the Internet and had to be treated the same regardless of content or sender. ISPs could not give companies different services, on the contrary users should be able to equally access any online content. The net neutrality rules protected local news outlets and other small enterprises that could not afford to pay more for better internet service. They were set to give everyone an equal chance to reach the customer. In summary, ISPs were to function as utility providers. Understandably, they did not want this egalitarian legislation, as being able to price-discriminate is one of the fundamental strategies to maximize revenues when selling a scarce resource.
In late 2017, the Federal Communications Commission overturned the net neutrality rules, endangering the viability of local journalism. New media startups and many local outlets are short of cash and cannot pay for “priority services” as large corporations do. The reasoning for the decision, led by FCC chairman Ajit Pai—who was general counsel for Verizon between 2001and 2003—, was that the government should not intervene on the Internet and that imposing net neutrality inhibited innovation. The new rule will permit ISPs to charge sites for faster online services. The telecommunications companies will have to offer that possibility to all parties. Those parties (every single company) will be able to pay higher fees for better internet services so that their offerings reach the consumer in better quality.
We believe this ruling violates what has been the core of the Internet from its inception: a world where every consumer and producer was equal. In the long term, the death of net neutrality will introduce the same capitalist principles that govern the rest of the market. The ones who pay are the ones who get the service.
The disappearance of net neutrality can prove especially harmful for local media outlets. A report by Stanford’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society (CIS) poses that net neutrality is vital for local news. The rise of the Internet, among other factors, has already decimated local printed journalism. According to a survey by Pew Research Center, the US daily newspapers weekday circulation fell 8% in 2016, making it another year of declines in newspaper readership.
The problem identified by the CIS report is that online local journalism has not grown up yet. Whereas global and nationwide online news outlets have been alive and “well” since the birth of the Internet, local news sites have been slower. Now, with the new FCC’s ruling over net neutrality, their maturity will be put into question. Local journalism lacks funding and its staff keeps decreasing. What’s more, local news outlets rely heavily on advertising (both print/radio/TV and digital.) But this limited digital advertising will be obliviated when net neutrality completely disappears. Who would want to advertise their product on a site that’s slow and does not work properly because they cannot pay the fee to the telecom company?
Therefore, net neutrality is a need for journalism. But it is also a need for the consumer, for small businesses, and for what is in itself the Internet. Mozilla Corporation, along with other technological and consumer advocacy groups, is trying to overturn the FCC’s decision. But if they can’t, and if other suits cannot do it either, we should start saying goodbye to those companies who will not be able to pay the fees that larger ones can.
Josep Valor & Carmen Arroyo