The FCC, Net Neutrality, and You

Cross-post from the Digital Fellows blog:

A few weeks ago, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announced it will propose new rules that effectively allow Internet service providers (ISP) to charge more money to certain companies in exchange for ‘faster lanes’ to deliver content to consumers.  These new rules could mean the beginning of the end for net neutrality.

The philosophy of net neutrality espouses two main ideas: 1) that all producers of Internet content (NetflixThe New York TimesNPRBoing Boing, You, Me, etc.) should be given equal access to the lanes that deliver content, and 2) that all users should have equal access to any content produced (so long as that content is legal, of course).  This means that you and I can visit any website we wish and 1) the content will be available and 2) the content will be delivered to us at equal speed (so, no long loading times for your personal blog while Nextflix loads immediately).

So, why does the news from the FCC threaten net neutrality, and why should that matter to users?

The new proposed rules from the FCC would allow certain ISP’s (those that have significantly more money and, potentially, influence) to pay higher prices for access to new ‘fast lanes.’  These ‘fast lanes’ would enable ISP’s to transfer preferred content at a faster rate to consumers, relegating other non-preferred content to the slower lanes.  An example from the New York Times highlights one problematic scenario that could arise: a large video game company pays to use a fast lane to deliver their game to consumers at the expense of a smaller start-up video game company.  The start-up company’s game will most likely suffer (and the start-up may fail) because customers are dissatisfied with how the start-up game loads in comparison to the larger company’s game.

Although gamers represent a large portion of the Internet-using population, a much more dangerous trend may emerge for the majority of Internet users if these proposed rules take effect.

Under current Internet regulations (which uphold a net neutrality policy), Americans have access to major Internet news sources (New York Times, Al JazeeraCNNThe Guardian, etc.), more independent news sources (Boing Boing, AlternetMother Jones, etc.), and individual news blogs (GawkerThe Huffington PostThinkProgress, etc.).  We are able to access major and minor news stories across different sites, comparing coverage and bias to make our own judgment about any particular event.  A move away from net neutrality would mean a weakened selection of news outlets and, quite plausibly, suppressed speech.

Major ISP’s (for instance, Comcast or Time Warner Cable) that purchase faster lanes may very likely preference their own news providers at the expense of smaller, more independent news providers.  This means that ISP’s would control, to a certain extent, the news that would be available to their subscribers.  Independent news sources may not have the means to deliver their content through the faster lanes, thus the content they produce will be much more difficult to access – a consequence that has troublesome implications for free speech.

Proponents of net neutrality believe that our right to free speech guarantees us all 1) equal access to produce (legal) Internet content and 2) equal right to access (legal) Internet content.  So, Internet regulations should be employed to protect all content producers so that the smallest voice is just powerful as the loudest voice.

Proponents of the more fiscally driven approach to Internet regulatory policy believe that the Internet is a business and should operate as one: goods (content) are produced and services are required to deliver those goods to consumers (users).  So, individuals and/or companies have the rights to pay to improve their service (thus improving their business) by paying for faster service lanes.  As a result, certain voices become more powerful than others.

The fiscally driven approach to Internet regulatory policy may produce a sphere of knowledge that purposely excludes certain voices, opinions and facts from public discourse.  This possibility alone is enough reason to follow what the FCC plans to propose, if it’s not enough of a call to become active in the conversation.

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