Why Loss of Net Neutrality Hurts Democracy

We’ve been through this countless times before. The FCC and the financial interests that it has always represented has overseen the zombification of radio and TV for decades, creating the publically-subidized wasteland from which internet users have been fleeing. These broadcast services started out with much of the promise and revolutionary potential of the internet.  Now they are just part of the problem.

The FCC’s claim of jurisdiction over the internet is dubious to begin with.   The FCC was created in order to allocate limited radio spectrum to multiple broadcasters in a fair way.   The internet isn’t a broadcast medium, it’s a utility.  It isn’t even constrained by real-time transmission considerations.  You can download a video while getting a cup of coffee.    Bandwidth allocations, to the extent that they’re needed, should be done in a generic way (text vs multimedia, for instance) and not motivated by political content or profit considerations which have destroyed the public airwaves already.   Given that the USA already has the slowest internet in the western world, it’s hard to see how further subsidies to the ISP monopolies are justifiable.

The internet is the last of the public intellectual commons.  There will be no place else to go.  The commodification of everything ultimately serves no one.

The audio of this interview is available on the net at: http://www.flashpoints.net/?p=6347   It starts around 22:00, but the whole show is worth a listen.

Despite its importance to a functioning democracy in the Twenty-first Century, many people’s eyes still glaze over at the uttering of the term Net Neutrality. However, whenever there is a clear explanation available, people — Republicans and Democrats alike — overwhelmingly support the concept and understand that, once again, it will be big business and corporations that will benefit greatly from the purging of the concept of Net Neutrality, and poor and working-class people and their families who will suffer from the recent decision to end it.

For an in-depth primer on the subject, I spoke with Professor Victor Pickard about the implications of the recent actions taken by the Republican-led Federal Communication Commision. Pickard is associate professor at the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania and author of the book America’s Battle for Media Democracy.

Dennis Bernstein: We turn now to the issue of net neutrality and its very serious implications for Internet users everywhere. Welcome Professor Pickard. Could you start by giving us an extended definition of net neutrality? People’s eyes still tend to glaze over when you raise the topic of net neutrality.

Victor Pickard: In a way, it is an unfortunate term. We can thank Timothy Woo for coining it, but I think we’re stuck with it at this point. Essentially, it means an open Internet. Net neutrality is the safeguard that prevents Internet service providers such as Verizon and Comcast from interfering with your online content. It prevents them from slowing down or blocking content or offering what is known as “paid prioritization.” This is where they set up slow and fast lanes and a kind of payola system where they try to shake down content creators and force them to “pay to play” in order to load and stream more quickly. This changes the underlying logic of the Internet, which was meant to be an open medium with all voices created equal.

Bernstein: And it was hoped that net neutrality would be an equalizer, making it possible for people to have a voice who hadn’t had one before and be able to access content that would not have been available before. Isn’t this essentially a question of democracy?

Pickard: Yes, the Internet has always had significant democratic potential. At least in theory, it can level power hierarchies. It can be used to give the voiceless more access to the public sphere. Of course, it never quite panned out this way. There have always been barriers to entry and there is still a major digital divide in this country. Nonetheless, the channels through which we access the Internet were meant to be kept equal and open, and without net neutrality that is no longer going to be the case.

As soon as you remove the basic safeguards, Internet service providers not only have the ability, they have a perverse incentive to make more money by charging us more for access to various types of content or charging content creators more to access the Internet. Of course, large corporations like Amazon and Netflix can afford to pay up. Those who will be hurt will be the activists and journalists, the people without the resources to pay to play.

That is what is so deeply troubling about this: It is going to hurt us as consumers — it is going to hurt us economically — but more importantly, it is going to hurt us democratically.

Bernstein: It is interesting, one of the consequences of the disappearance of newspapers, particularly investigative reporting, was the emergence of various independent investigative organizations online who have been doing an incredibly good job. They will suffer from this, won’t they?

Pickard: Yes, they will suffer disproportionately from this. Traditional newspapers and smaller independent news outlets depend on the Internet to reach broader audiences. They couldn’t afford to do this otherwise. Without having the resources to pay up, it is going to create a stranglehold on those kinds of investigative outlets. This is especially troubling now, at this perilous political moment.

Bernstein: What is problematic about the claim of [FCC] Chairman Ajit Pai that he “would hate to side with the Democrats, but this was Bill Clinton’s vision for the Internet”?

Pickard: Such a claim is disingenuous and ahistorical. While it is possible to argue that the Internet has traditionally been lightly regulated, in many cases this has simply not been true. In fact, we wouldn’t even have the Internet if not for massive public subsidies and regulations.

You have to go back to 2002, when then FCC chairman Michael Powell re-categorized Internet services. Instead of considering it a telecommunications service — which had always been heavily regulated — the category description became one of an “information service,” which is only lightly regulated. That is what really started this whole ongoing debate and policy battle. So you can’t say that this was a democratic position. That’s simply not true. ….



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