By G. Michael Dobbs
With everything that has been vying for your attention of late – from local politics to the Patriots and their playoff game to the beginning of the awards season in entertainment – you may have not paid too much attention to a very serious story that hasn’t received the concern many people believe it should: net neutrality.
Essentially net neutrality means the companies that supply you with your Internet access – Charter Communications, Comcast, Verizon, to name three – can not give preferential treatment to any website and can charge you one fee for the service. It also can’t block websites that have content of which the companies may not approve.
Net neutrality has meant democratic access and use of the Internet. However a recent decision from the U.S. Court of Appeals struck down the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) rules insuring net neutrality. The FCC intends to fight back, but in the mean time people who watch businesses such as Verizon are wondering how they will react.
It would appear, according to tech writer Brian Fung of the Washington Post, companies such as Verizon could now consider various packages of use for Internet service. If you never stream a movie from Netflix, but only use the web for email and causal surfing, you would probably be charged the least amount of money to have the proper broadband access.
However, if you get your movies online or are a gamer, you could be subject to a much higher fee.
Internet service providers could also give preference to certain sites, while slowing other sites down. The example I read the most about has been about Comcast and Netflix. Comcast might not allow people to have the same kind of broadband access to Netflix in the hopes they would switch to Hulu, a movie and television service that company owns. So they slow down Netflix in order to make Hulu more appealing.
To continue this fictitious scenario, the service providers could then go into a partnership with Netflix, charging that company money to get the high-speed lane of the information highway and then charge consumers more money to access that service. The service providers get to make more money from both ends.
This will also mean that new Internet businesses might have a tougher time reaching a market, especially if what they do requires a bunch of bandwidth.
Let’s bring this concept a bit further. Let’s say a group of people on the web want to fight the end of net neutrality. Would their websites be blocked? What if a corporation with a political agenda controls a service provider? How would that affect the sites that are available?
Americans have treated the web as an extension of other mass media and have assumed the freedom of speech applies to it. While the ability to place content on a website doesn’t seem to be affected by this decision, it does give private companies the means to control the distribution of that content. That’s not much different than magazine distributors deciding whether or not to carry a magazine or bookstores to accept or reject putting a book on its shelves.
The difficulty is the Internet put those traditional business models on their heads. It has allowed people to sidestep those traditional means of distribution. It has fostered the freedom of speech at the same time it has built new businesses and created new jobs.
Changing the web now is like squeezing the genie back into the bottle. Do we really want to be like other countries that restrict the web? Do we really want the freedom of speech and ability to innovate controlled by large corporations?
Now I’m sure some folks would counter this argument with one of competition – that new companies could spring up to provide services. How could this work? In my case, I get broadband from Comcast through their wire that comes into my home. A new company offering me the same broadband would have to string up its own system of wires through Springfield. Could that be done and could a start-up company afford it?
I would like to think that this issue crosses the line between progressives and conservatives and that everyone should be concerned.
Agree? Disagree? Drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 280 N. Main St., East Longmeadow, MA 01028. As always, this column represents the opinion of its author and not the publishers or advertisers of this newspaper.