Is the Internet a public asset? Is it something like Lake Michigan, that we long go decided should be “forever open, clear and free”? If it is, how do we deal with the private companies that bring us that Internet? Should they be treated as “common carriers”, and told that they must make everything on the Internet available at all times to all customers?
On January 14, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit struck down the Federal Communications Commission’s open internet rules, commonly known as “Net Neutrality” because Internet Service Providers are not classified as “common carriers” by the FCC. As a result, ISPs now have freedoms that they didn’t have before. For example, your provider may deny you access to movies or content that are created by one of its competitors. Or, the provider might charge a content creator for the privilege of carrying their content to its subscribers.
This has the Internet community pretty divided.
“You’ve got content providers on one side who absolutely do not want to go to the cable/satellite model of having to pay access fees to the internet service providers,” says Frank Sennett, Director of Digital Strategies at Crain’s. “You’ve got the broadband providers on the other hand who would desperately like to start getting their hands on that money…I’m at least glad that there are warring huge corporate interests and it’s not just one-sided, because then we’d be lost.”
And if the community is divided about how ISPs should be regulated, it’s even more divided about how to navigate the new landscape since the Court of Appeals ruling.
Demond Drummer, Tech Organizer for Teamwork Englewood, is part of a group that fights to gain Internet access to underprivileged communities where the Internet has historically developed more slowly than in other places. Drummer says that a new financial order might bring some benefits, because big gobblers of bandwidth such as Netflix are being subsidized by people who pay for internet access but don’t watch their site.
“A lot of folks in some parts of the city don’t subscribe to Netflix. They may watch YouTube..but these are not heavy users of the Internet, so it may well be the case that with the Court shooting down this open Internet order, that maybe there’d be some pricing schemes that may, on the back end, make broadband Internet more accessible because right now we are paying as consumers for the cost of pumping HBO and Netflix through…”
And Sennett lays out a possible scenario for what the Internet might look like in a few years.
“What if you’ve got a provider whose marketing plan is free unfettered Internet? That’s gonna be a pretty good selling point. Another competitor could come in and say, we’re gonna give you the best streaming video experience and it’s gonna be prioritizing that. That’s gonna be a potent marketing tool as well. There might be a third provider, and this is interesting to me because there might be censorship implications…you could have a provider and a lot of parents, I think might like this…a provider could say, our marketing plan is, we’re going to throttle everything in the hinterlands of online erotica. We’re going to put these filters in place…we’re gonna give you the cleanest, most G-rated Internet, and for some people that would be a selling point. So if Internet neutrality is completely struck down, there are a lot of interesting ways that it’ll game out.
But, Sennett continues, this could be very different in different parts of the country. “I’ve gotta think that in the wireless world (that part including smart phones and tablets) there’s always going to be that competitor that says, the unfettered, the free, that’s our calling card. In smaller towns and in rural areas there often actually only is one option…and that’s a little frightening to me, that one player might decide for a lot of people what their Internet experience is gonna be.
Tribune columnist Phil Rosenthal has concerns that the data hogs could begin to impinge on news and information sites.
“Watching a movie takes a lot of bandwidth. Finding out what’s going on in the world, talking to other people in the world without the entertainment aspect, takes a lot less. Should the people who want just the basic information have that information come at them at a much slower rate because the bandwidth is choked up with this other stuff, that’s a legitimate question.”
Complicating matters, according to Rosenthal, is his perception that the “FCC clearly doesn’t want to engage on this point. They say they’re for net neutrality, but they aren’t doing what’s necessary to make it happen. ”
And that opens the issue to pure market forces, which could clearly leave many in the dust. “We talk about – if you’re willing to pay, if you have the money, they’ll find you. There are huge portions of this and every community where this is a real challenge, and there isn’t the money to lure a business to create competition and demonstrate demand. and how they’re going to be protected – that’s a great concern.”