On Thursday, the Federal Communications Commission will be in Minneapolis for a public hearing on the future of the Internet. The big question now looming over this hearing is whether the fate of the Internet has already been decided behind closed doors before the FCC has heard what the public has to say.
This hearing should be an opportunity for the FCC commissioners to learn from those outside of Washington, D.C., as they deliberate over whether the Internet will be an open platform for public discussion and innovation or a private pathway for delivering commercial content. The two commissioners who have agreed to attend, Michael Copps and Mignon Clyburn, have been stalwart defenders of the public Interest.
By contrast, the chairman of the FCC, Obama’s law-school buddy Julius Genachowski, seems to see his role as a broker among corporate interests, not as their regulator. We have seen the results of that approach from Wall Street to the Deepwater Horizon. Now we are beginning to see it online.
Earlier this summer it emerged that Genachowski has been holding closed-door meetings with lobbyists from the big tech and telecom companies — Google and Amazon, Verizon and AT&T, and the like. Since then, some of these companies that once supported an open, level-playing-field Internet now say they want a privatized, pay-to-play network.
“If some or even all of newly available capacity were dedicated to particular content,” wrote Paul Misener, Amazon’s vice president for global public policy, in a recent editorial, “then all content would be treated at least as well as, and likely better than, before (for the same reason that building a new highway alleviates traffic on nearby small roads).”
We’ll be paying through the nose to sit in traffic
He wants you to think that an exclusive superhighway for BMWs is going to alleviate traffic for the rest of us driving on the small roads. Not likely. That might work for those with wallets as fat as Amazon and Google, but the rest of us will be paying through the nose for the privilege of sitting in traffic.
Google was once the most vocal industry supporter of the open Internet principle known as “net neutrality,” which prevents discrimination against online content. Now, in partnership with Verizon, it is proposing regulations that would allow YouTube (owned by Google) to pay Verizon to discriminate against non-Google content. So if your video is not a YouTube video it may not be available to someone on a Verizon connection. Or it might be very slow. Unless you pay.
These kinds of online disparities matter. A recent study by the Center for Rural Policy and Development in St. Peter, Minn., showed that the sizable differences in broadband speeds that are available from school district to school district translate into disparities in educational achievement. What’s true for schools is also true for communities and individuals: Who has access to high-speed Internet increasingly determines who has access to economic and political opportunities.
These are not decisions that can be left to corporate gatekeepers.
A public sphere, not Google’s playground
The Internet is not Google’s playground; it is our 21st century public sphere. Allowing for discrimination based on wealth and access to the FCC’s smoke-filled rooms is the beginning of a digital Jim Crow.
On Aug. 5, Genachowski’s office announced there would be no more secret meetings. That toxic, leaking well has been plugged, but there is still cleanup required. The chairman has to begin working with public-interest groups at least as closely as he has worked with the big tech businesses. He should attend the public hearing in Minneapolis and take time to visit with community groups to see the diverse ways we are using the open Internet.
The Minneapolis hearing is our opportunity to insist that the public will not be ignored. Commissioners Clyburn and Copps will be there, along with Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie. If you use the Internet or would like to, you should be there, too: Thursday, Aug.19, at 6 pm at South High School Auditorium, 3131 19th Avenue South, Minneapolis.
Amalia Deloney is the policy director for the Center for Media Justice and a Knight Media Policy Fellow with New America Foundation. Joshua Breitbart is the senior field analyst for New America Foundation’s Open Technology Initiative.