The Federal Communications Commission’s “net neutrality” rules were originally established to ensure that leading Internet service providers would not block, degrade, or otherwise undermine some Internet services at the expense of others.
However, on Jan. 14 of this year, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit published an 81-page document that struck down these rules. In its decision, the court described the Internet as having four major participants: backbone networks, broadband providers, edge providers, and end-users.
One particular passage in the court’s decision was noteworthy: “Proponents of net neutrality – or, to use the Commission’s preferred term, “Internet openness” – worry about the relationship between broadband providers and edge providers. They fear that broadband providers might prevent their end-user subscribers from accessing certain edge providers altogether, or might degrade the quality of their end-user subscribers’ access to certain edge providers, either as a means of favoring their own competing content or services or to enable them to collect fees from certain edge providers. Thus, for example, a broadband provider like Comcast might limit its end-user subscribers’ ability to access the New York Times website if it wanted to spike traffic to its own news website, or it might degrade the quality of the connection to a search website like Bing if a competitor like Google paid for prioritized access.”
If Internet service providers are given the freedom to discriminate in such a way, they will be able to effectively control which services that are provided over the Internet work best, or indeed work at all. The handful of giant corporations that control connections to homes and to mobile computing devices will consequently gain even more power than they did before. If this power is left unchecked, however, it could result in higher prices for services, barriers to innovation, and de facto censorship of information services.
While the court’s decision – which the U.S. Supreme Court may yet review – strikes down a particular Federal Communications Commission rule, many legal experts are of the opinion that it actually expands the authority of the commission to act in other areas. The legal issues involved are technical and complex, but the challenges for the Federal Communications Commission in restoring a regulatory framework are largely political in nature: In Washington, D.C., it is far easier to block new policy rules than it is to enact new ones.
Washington has become a cesspool of corruption because of a series of court decisions that have eliminated the limits that had been placed on corporate contributions to candidates vying for electoral office.
No one knows for sure how much money the large telephone and cable television companies that control the broadband services spend on political campaigns. The reason for this lack of knowledge is that there are countless ways to use third parties, such as law firms, consultants, and related businesses, to make contributions to politicians and parties, or to influence the outcome of elections.
Verizon, the company that sued the Federal Communications Commission so as to overturn the net neutrality rules, can donate directly to candidates, political action committees, Super PACs, and outside groups. It can also donate both “hard money” and “soft money” to political parties. In addition, it can hire an army of former Congressional, White House, and Federal Communications Commission staffers, and donate millions of dollars to hundreds of nonprofit organizations.
Professor Lawrence Lessig of Harvard University has, rightly, said that corruption is the root problem in politics right now, and it is front and center in the debate over net neutrality. But with the stakes so high, and so many people and businesses impacted by the decision, it may be possible to enact new protections that ensure that broadband Internet service providers do not have the last word on what services work best, or work at all.
The Internet is now at the center of our economic, social, and cultural lives. As a result it should not be controlled by telephone and cable companies.
James Love is the director of Knowledge Ecology International (KEI). In 2013, Love received the Electronic Frontier Foundation Pioneer Award, to recognize leaders who extend freedom and innovation in the realm of information technology. He advises United Nations agencies, governments, and numerous non-governmental organizations. This commentary originally appeared at The Mark News (www.themarknews.com).