by Randolph T. Holhut
American Reporter Correspondent
April 15, 2010
NET NEUTRALITY AND THE BATTLE FOR AN OPEN INTERNET
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- The Internet has changed so much in the 15 years since The American Reporter first appeared on the scene as the first exclusively online newspaper.
Even the biggest dreamers had no idea in 1995 how everything would turn out. In the many happy accidents in the evolution of the Internet, one of the happiest has been that it began as and it remains today the last open communications platform where anyone with online access and a computer can create and consume online content, at a nominal cost.
The things that the AR accomplished in its lifetime would not have been possible without this amazing technology that allows all of us to share information with a global audience without mediation by gatekeepers in government or industry is at the core of the online revolution we have lived through over the past two decades.
At the heart of this is a principle called net neutrality - that every bit and byte on the Internet is treated equally. Unfortunately, this is not an idea supported by the big telecommunication companies. They seek not only to provide Internet service, but to have the ability to choose which content on the Web loads fast, slow or not at all.
The Federal Communications Commission has sought the authority to prevent Internet service providers from blocking and controlling Internet traffic to favor some content over others. But on April 6, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled that the FCC lacks the current authority to enforce net neutrality.
That decision was a big victory for Comcast, the nation's largest cable company, which challenged the FCC's authority to regulate the Internet. It was also a huge setback for free speech online and for the prospects of bringing broadband to the entire country.
A policy enacted by the FCC during the Bush Administration in 2002 reclassified broadband as an "information service" rather than a "telecommunications service." This created the loophole that Comcast exploited in last week's court decision, because the FCC doesn't have the same regulatory oversight over information services that it has over telecommunications services.
The loophole effectively leaves the FCC without authority over broadband. It could also cripple its ability to implement portions of its just-released National Broadband Plan, which is designed to expand high speed Internet access to underserved rural areas such as Vermont.
Globally, the United States has fallen far behind in the number of households with broadband Internet access. In 2001, this nation ranked fourth in the world in broadband access and in adoption by households and businesses across the country. As of 2009, according to a report published by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, we are now ranked 15th.
Countries such as Estonia, Greece, France and Finland have recognized Internet access as a basic human right. This might be considered a broad interpretation of the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which includes the right to education and the right to work, both of which can hinge on Internet access. But the United States is the only industrialized nation in the world without a national broadband policy.
There is plenty of evidence confirming that broadband is no longer a luxury but a necessity for economic development, education and health care. Studies from the Brookings Institute, MIT, the World Bank and others show that even modest increases in broadband adoption nationally can result in hundreds of thousands of new jobs, particularly in rural areas.
But the telecommunications companies in the United States are in no hurry to bring our network up to the standards of our global rivals, let alone make broadband ubiquitous. Because most markets have little competition, the telecom industry puts as much political pressure as it can to keep the FCC from infringing on its enormous profits.
The FCC could get its power back by reclassifying broadband as a "telecommunications service," but it will take more political will than currently exists. But this is a critical fight for the future of this medium.
As we enter an age where television, radio, phone service and every type of media other than the printed page will be delivered by a broadband connection, do we want to give service providers the ability to block, control or interfere with what we search for or create online? Do we want them to be able to prioritize some content over others? Do we want to create a tiered Internet where favored content moves swiftly, while other content crawls along?
In the 15 years since The American Reporter's debut, the Internet has evolved into our nation's primary communications platform. We need a strong net neutrality policy that keeps the Internet out of the hands of corporations and keeps it in the hands of the people.
Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for nearly 30 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.