Friday, January 24, 2014

143.3 - Update: Net neutrality

Update: Net neutrality

Now for Updates on two things I talked about last week, things to which I'm returning because I think they are important enough to merit more attention.

The first, I suppose, is not so much of an update as a backfill and there are two parts to the backfill.

To start, there's a basic point you need to understand. You probably already do, but I want to lay this out to make sure it's clear. There are essentially, at its most basic level, two parts to the Internet: There are content providers - the people who create the videos, the blogs, the websites, all the stuff you actually look at, read, and listen to over the Internet. Then there are the content carriers, the corporations that own and control the networks, wired or wireless, over which that content is transmitted. There are complications in that content carriers can also be content providers, providing their own original content, but overall, you can say there are content providers and content carriers.

Okay, last week I spoke about Net neutrality, about the principle that all information transmitted on the Internet is treated equally. I described the decision in federal court that said that the FCC could not regulate broadband - that is, high-speed internet traffic - the way the agency tried to do it and how that decision essentially undermined Net neutrality.

That's because result of that court decision was that the handful of giant corporations such as Verizon and Comcast and AT&T that control the networks over which that traffic passes could favor some content (including their own) over others - which means, in practice, they could favor that content produced by other large companies with the bucks to pay for special treatment while everyone else would just have to wait until Veriz-cast and Com-zon got around to them. That is, if it got around to them at all because now there is nothing to prevent them from saying to some content provider "we just won't carry your content - as far as the US is concerned, you are off the Internet."

The first part of the backfill is that I said that as a result of that decision, that unless something changes, the future of the Internet could be found in the past and I compared it to the argument over the Fairness Doctrine. But because time was short last week, I didn't explain that as I wanted to, so I'm going to do that now.

The Fairness Doctrine was an FCC rule that required broadcasters to deal with issues "of public interest," including some controversial ones, and that, overall, the station's coverage of those issues be reasonably "fair" with various sides having a "reasonable" opportunity to be heard.

The Fairness Doctrine was around for a long time. In fact, an early version of the Fairness Doctrine was in place before the FCC was created. Over the years, it existed in a number of different forms. But some form of it was there.

As broadcast media corporations became more concentrated and more powerful is the '60s and '70s, they started to complain about the Fairness Doctrine. They spent years trying to get the rule repealed. A main argument was that the rule was unnecessary because broadcasters could be trusted to address controversies, and do it a way fair to all sides, on their own.

At the time, I was involved in efforts to maintain the rule and I wondered aloud why, if that was true, if the rule only required them to do what they would do anyway, they were devoting such time and energy and money to getting it repealed.

Finally, under the corporate capitalist friendly Reagan regime in the 1980s, it was repealed - followed almost immediately by the explosion of right-wing talk radio, the virtual disappearance of even just liberal voices, and the emergence of overtly biased networks such as Fox. I had my answer, the one I knew to be true all along.

Okay, that's the past. What about the present? Randall Milch, executive vice president of Verizon, had this to say, which I also quoted last week:
One thing is for sure: Today’s decision will not change consumers’ ability to access and use the Internet as they do now. Verizon has been and remains committed to the open Internet that provides consumers with competitive choices and unblocked access to lawful websites and content when, where, and how they want.
In other words, he's trying to claim that "The elimination of Net neutrality won't make aaany difference at all and we went to a lot of time and energy and money to get rid of a regulation that didn't make us do anything we wouldn't do anyway." As I said last week, we've been down this road before. We have to make sure we don't wind up in the same place.

Which brings up the second part of the backfill.

That goes back to Milch's statement: "Verizon remains committed to the open Internet that provides consumers with competitive choices and unblocked access to lawful websites and content when, where, and how they want." Note carefully - note very carefully - that he declares a commitment to "unblocked" access but not to "equal" access. That is, while he clearly tries to make you think that there will be no changes at all no way no how, he very carefully avoids any commitment to Net neutrality, promising only "competitive choices," which, as we all learned long ago, is corporate-speak for "pay up or give up."

And we truly have been down this road before. Remember when the P in PBS meant "public" broadcasting and it was going to be the outlet for all the previously-unheard voices? Remember when UHF TV (for the kiddies, that's broadcast TV channels 14-83) was going to open up so many outlets for creativity and, again, unheard voices? Remember when that was also supposedly going to be true for cable TV - and how, for a time, it was? So far, the Internet has escaped the fate of those others precisely because of its essentially democratic, even anarchic, nature: Unlike broadcast media or cable, there are not a limited number of content providers available to any given user. You aren't limited to a dozen TV stations or even a couple of hundred cable channels, there are millions, tens of millions, of options. The whole Internet is there. But now we are faced with the very real possibility of that no longer being true, both literally in the sense of blocked access and, more importantly because more likely, effectively in the sense of delays, bottlenecks, and agonizingly slow transmission rates for less-favored (that is, less well-heeled) providers.

We have been down this road before. We have to make sure we don't wind up in the same place.

I should add as a footnote that Net neutrality is not dead, just moribund. The court decision relied significantly on the FCC having classified Internet service as an "information service" rather than a "telecommunications service" and found that the regulations in question had treated outfits like Verizon, which brought the suit, as the latter, as a telecommunications service, which made the regulations invalid. So the FCC could try re-issuing the regulations while treating the corporations that are transmitting the data as an information service (even though that classification was designed for content providers, not content carriers). Or, much better, since this was based on the FCC's own classification, it could reclassify Internet service providers - content carriers - as providing a telecommunications service, overcoming that objection to the regulations.

An even better - but far less likely - alternative would be for Congress to pass legislation specifically establishing Net neutrality as law and empowering the FCC to regulate the telcoms to that end. In any event, buckle up, kiddos: In a few years, this show may be the only alternative news source you can get without paying extra.


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