The Internet has revolutionized communications in the 21st Century. But RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay says this open communication system is threatened by a move in Washington, D.C., to remove Internet neutrality.
The Internet has changed forever the way we do business. It has become a defining engine of commerce, a system that has made shopping easier and keeping track of friends more convenient. It has driven productivity and brought the world to your living room. You can even take college courses on the Internet.
But it’s much more than that. The Internet has become our public square. It’s the way many of us get our news, petition our elected officials and make our views known to the wider world. It has added a new dimension to democracy.
The crucial role this information superhighway plays in our democracy is the reason we ought to be wary of the Federal Communications Commission’s plan to repeal the Obama Administration’s policy of so-called net neutrality. This is the policy in which the government requires Internet providers to treat all data equally.
While it’s difficult to predict what would happen if the policy is repealed, the fears of the pro-neutrality activists need to be addressed. One big concern is that eliminating neutrality will restructure how the information highway works. Will there be lanes for Mercedes and Cadillac users who can afford higher tolls and get their information faster? Will those who can’t afford these fees be relegated to a digital dirt road?
Will be Internet become like cable television, with packages that bundle sports, movies and hundreds of channels? That’s great, if you can afford it. What it could do is hand the Internet keys to big players – think Verizon or Amazon – and create a system where powerful websites can drive over smaller independent websites by paying to have their content delivered faster.
If you don’t like dealing with your cable company, or negotiating a mobile phone service package now, just think how much more complicated and expensive accessing the Internet could become.
The research that created the Internet was financed largely by U.S. taxpayers. This means that the Internet was started as a public good, not a private franchise. Inventors and entrepreneurs deserve to earn royalties from products they devise and market. But the Internet isn’t like Thomas Edison and his light bulb, invented by a private citizen and marketed by investors. Taking a public good that taxpayers financed and turning it over to the highest bidder doesn’t seem fair.
The push to eliminate net neutrality is coming from the big telecommunications players. The new chairman of the FCC, a onetime Verizon lawyer, says a vote will come as early as December 14.
Perhaps the worst thing about this decision is that it is an abdication of the role the U.S. Congress ought to be playing. This decision is too important to be made by an obscure federal agency with scant accountability to voters.
One Republican senator – Susan Collins of Maine – has said she opposes repeal of net neutrality. Rhode Island’s Jack Reed, a Democrat, has also publicly criticized repeal. Our elected representatives, who at least are accountable to voters, ought to make a decision that affects so many corners of our lives.
It’s one thing to forge an Internet that has a few wealthy gatekeepers who see their mission as delivering products to consumers in the fastest manner. It’s quite another to create a system that can deliver one form of news and political comment quickly and effectively squelch alternative points of view.
Some of those who argue for an end to net neutrality assert the rules discourage investment and innovation on the Internet. If that was truly the case, Congress could relax some rules but keep the core of the Internet open to all views. All that is needed is legislation that bar networks from blocking or slowing data or from charging extra for so-called fast lane Internet services.
Our nation is stratified along economic borders to a degree not seen since the Gilded Age. Why at this time in our history would the nation want to increase a digital divide?
It brings to mind that old New England adage, "if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it." Let’s leave the Internet open to all who log on.
Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday on Morning Edition at 6:45 and 8:45 and on All Things Considered at 5:44 . You can also follow his political reporting and analysis at our “On Politics’ blog at RIPR.org