When the Internet isn’t neutral

“Neutrality” is a principle built into the whole idea of the Internet, an almost creed-like notion set out by the pioneers of the technology and devotedly intoned (sometimes proclaimed) by their legions of descendants worldwide. The idea that the smallest, least-followed blog or smallest local-business website should be available as quickly and easily, to any user, as are Google, Amazon, or CNN seems so basic, so true, to our understanding of how online information can be accessed and shared that it would barely dawn on us to consider it another way.

Which is maybe part of the problem. Anyone surprised by the decision Tuesday of a federal appeals court to strike down the concept of “net neutrality” – and many people are – probably thought little or nothing of the FCC’s decision in 2002 to classify the web as an “information” service and not as a telecommunications service like telephone, thus consigning it to a different regulatory category. Phone companies are obligated to place calls between parties without any roadblocks, and the same free and open flow of communications came to be an accepted characteristic of the Internet. For a while, the spirit of neutrality obtained—even to the point of “Net Neutrality” rules being enacted at the federal level in 2010. But the regulatory distinction between utilities and information services, an important one, was always clear to Internet service providers, which have long sought freedom from government limits on how they can use, and make money from, the networks they've built.

Fact is, the service providers are right, at least on the legal point – something the appeal judges were said to have noted somewhat ruefully in their decision (for this reason, the case doesn’t seem likely to go to the Supreme Court). Had the FCC simply categorized web service as a telephone-like utility back in 2002, people might not be so worried about what they woke up to today.

Which is what, exactly?

Major service providers like Verizon (a main challenger of neutrality rules) would be free to charge different prices to different content providers. The popular example to use is a media-streaming service like Netflix, which might find itself paying higher fees to Internet service providers to ensure its movies are delivered quickly, reliably, and without disruption to customers. Of course, it’s not hard to imagine other content providers also being forced to pay more to make sure their content is easily available—not just the biggest ones, but also the more modestly sized ones, and on down the line to the smallest. If there’s something unfortunately extortionate about the pricing models likely to emerge, there’s also something unfortunately familiar about what will transpire: Those that can afford to pay first-class will pay. As for those that can’t, their content will be relegated to second-, third-, or some as yet undefined lower class of travel. Think of all the things you like to watch and read and how fast you can get to them; now think of the organizations that provide them. How many are as deep-pocketed as a Google, Facebook, or Fox News?

Even easier to imagine is who the costs of higher-tiered services will ultimately be passed on to: consumers. And again, it will transpire that those with the ability to pay for the best will do just that. Some years ago, the term “digital divide” was used to rally support for providing basic computer technology and broadband service to schools and communities—urban and rural—that were least able to get it. The aim was to help the people in these communities keep pace with their better-connected fellow citizens not only in computer literacy, but also in access to the goods, services, and information increasingly made available, in some cases exclusively, online. The worry now, and it seems like a real one, is that a new divide is about to open, one caused not by accident of location or physical and technological barriers, but by—as is so typically the case—market forces. And it will be yet another way for the haves, already girded with various preferred-customer, premium-flyer, express-lane advantages, to assert their status, purchasing power, and political might over the have-nots.

Ah, yes, the political. Something, if not much, has been made of the fact that Michael Powell, a Republican appointee, was head of the FCC when it classified Internet providers as it did in 2002. Something more has been made of the fact that the current head of the FCC, Obama appointee Tom Wheeler, has worked as a lobbyist for the cable and wireless phone industries. Wheeler could theoretically reclassify Internet service providers as common carriers like phone companies, and he has said he’s not opposed to neutrality. What he’s also said is that he’s willing to let Internet companies experiment with new ways of delivering service, which in any language seems to mean: Let the market have its way.

As for the more direly specific ramifications, they're posited by Juan Cole. And frankly, none of this strikes me as especially paranoid: 

I am hoping that Barack Obama knows that he got elected in 2008 in part because of the free Internet. I am hoping he knows that Fox Cable News could be the future of information if corrupt billionaires like Rupert Murdoch (whose companies have been implicated in spying on large numbers of peoples’ telephone answering machines) are allowed to buy the internet after they already bought the people’s airwaves. I am hoping that working people and the middle classes know that there are corporations that would buy and sell them if they could (some 2,000 large corporations account for half of the US GDP of about $16 trillion annually, or $8 trillion). I hope environmentalists understand that the Koch brothers’ disinformation campaign about climate change, the most serious issue facing humankind, would become a cake walk if they could just pay for the fast-loading sites and refuse to let scientific information appear on them, with science breakthroughs being relegated to pitiful five-minute waits on university YouTube channels.

An era could be coming to an end.

Dominic Preziosi is Commonweal’s editor. Follow him on Twitter.

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