A federal appeals court ruling against the FCC’s ability to ensure equal access to all content on the Internet is an ominous stumbling block. In effect, the ruling opens the door for service providers, like cable companies and phone companies, to charge fees to those who want to use more bandwidth than the average geek, instead of giving everyone equal access to the Internet (a concept known as net neutrality).
Comcast had claimed the right to create a slow lane for its customers trying to access the BitTorrent file-sharing service, and many observers predict this path could lead to faster connections only for those willing to pay a fee. For example, YouTube could be charged a fee to deliver high-definition videos to site visitors. No one is yet speculating on how such sites would recover those costs—but I bet you can make an educated guess.
The ruling also endangers President Obama’s national broadband plan. Agencies have moved ahead with designating billions for extending broadband to rural areas, dollars that the FCC plans to transfer from phone service to Internet service. The court ruling appears to indicate that the FCC does not have the authority to make that transfer.
The Web is too important to every student, instructor, consumer, business, traveler, healthcare facility, library and even lawyer to be subjected to the fee vagaries of service providers, who would be able to slow or block some sites and charge others if the recent ruling holds. The ‘Net should be treated as a public utility, because that is what it is. Look what’s happened to airlines since they’ve been deregulated—now it’s not enough to pay $50 roundtrip to check a baggage; Spirit Airlines is going to charge you $90 more roundtrip to put your carry-on bag in the overhead bin.
Not everyone needs to fly every day, of course, and the role of airlines in American life is far from that of a utility. But everyone does need to use the Internet every day, even if in unseen ways. Behind the scenes, banks, schools, checkout clerks, nurses and thousands of other professions depend on the Internet to gather, store and transfer data. The creation of a fast lane for those content providers who can afford to pay, and a slow lane for those who can’t, would threaten to demolish the leveling effect that the Internet has brought to education, entrepreneurship and entertainment.
Without equal access, everyone will indeed know that you’re a dog on the Internet. As reported in The New York Times, innovation would suffer greatly from restrictions on Internet access:
“You can’t have innovation if all the big companies get the fast lane,” said Gigi B. Sohn, president of Public Knowledge, which advocates for consumer rights on digital issues. “Look at Google, eBay, Yahoo — none of those companies would have survived if 15 years ago we had a fast lane and a slow lane on the Internet.”
No service providers have as yet indicated that they intend to establish what the Times report called “toll roads for broadband,” but intentions are not commitments. FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski has indicated that losing the court battle would prompt his agency to look for some other legal authority to protect consumers, and Congress can pass legislation giving explicit authority to the FCC to regulate Internet service.
Such legislation is essential. We’ve come too far together for inequalities once again to pull us apart.