FCC comes to town: What’s the future of the Internet?

My introduction to the Internet came in the early 1990s when scientists at the University of Minnesota showed me their “gopher” system for accessing information on their computers. It was mind-boggling at the time to see that a few keystrokes enabled them to share documents with plugged-in colleagues across the world.

What’s mind-boggling now is how much this global scheme we call the Internet has revolutionized our work, our relationships and our ordinary day-to-day activities in just two decades. It connects me to my editors, my kids, my doctor, my bank, my sources, my insurance guy, etc. The list goes on and on.

The revolution is far from over. Its next steps hinge on a raging battle over what is billed as no less than the “future of the Internet.”

Minnesotans can get into the debate beginning tonight — Thursday, Aug. 19 — at a public hearing in Minneapolis featuring two commissioners from the Federal Communications Commission: Michael Copps and Mignon Clyburn.

Michael Copps
Michael Copps

Also on the program is U.S. Sen. Al Franken. The Minnesota Democrat stepped forth recently as an outspoken advocate for “net neutrality” — in other words, an Internet where all information is equally available to users.

And next Tuesday, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski is scheduled to speak at a broadband summit hosted by Minnesota’s other Democratic U.S. Senator, Amy Klobuchar. The stated purpose of the summit on the University of Minnesota’s Minneapolis campus is to discuss the need for making high-speed broadband available to all Minnesotans. A panel of community and business leaders from across the state is to weigh in with ideas.

Free speech
The FCC’s authority to regulate the Internet and institute a version of net neutrality has been limited by recent court decisions. And this month, media giants Verizon and Google unveiled a deal that would preserve some aspects of an open Internet while also leaving companies free to create some restricted premium networks on devices like mobile phones.

The hosts for Thursday’s hearing are far from neutral in this debate. The organizations — Free Press, Main Street Project and the Center for Media Justice — have fought hard for preserving a freely open Internet. They maintain that net neutrality is a matter of free speech and that it is at risk of being controlled by phone and cable giants.

Mignon Clyburn
Mignon Clyburn

“In Minnesota, the Internet has become an increasingly critical platform for jobs, education and health care,” Steven Renderos, an organizer at Main Street Project, said in a statement announcing the hearing.

“It is important that the FCC step up to preserve the open Internet because without it, we risk further marginalizing the communities that need it the most,” he said.

You can read more arguments on this side of the debate — and informed readers’ comment too — in this piece on MinnPost’s Community Voices section. For a different view, go to today’s Voices commentary here.

On the other side, arguments for the Google-Verizon approach stress that more competition, not more government regulation, will propel innovation into a future when we will find ever more uses for devices like smart phones.

“The Web works best when companies invest in its infrastructure,” L. Gordon Crovitz wrote in the Wall Street Journal. He is a former WSJ publisher who now advises media companies.

“An earlier generation of FCC regulators saw their role as protecting Ma Bell and its monopoly, prolonging the days of rotary dials and high consumer costs,” Crovitz said. “Today’s FCC should focus on increasing competition, not increasing regulation, as the better way to ensure an open Internet.”

Tonight’s hearing is scheduled for 6 p.m. at South High School Auditorium, 3131 19th Ave. S., Minneapolis.

Next Tuesday’s summit is scheduled for 10 a.m. to noon at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management, 3M Auditorium, 321 19th Ave. S., Minneapolis.

Sharon Schmickle writes about national and foreign affairs and science. She can be reached at sschmickle [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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Comments (11)

  1. Submitted by christopher mitchell on 08/19/2010 - 08:37 am.

    Crovitz suggests that regulation and competition are mutually exclusive. Of course, for the past 10 years or so, we have de-regulated broadband and seen the number of ISPs decline by the thousands (literally).

    The truth is that proper regulation is needed to encourage competition – this is the nature of a natural monopoly market. In the absence of competition, Comcast and Qwest are all we will ever have in the Twin Cities.

  2. Submitted by Holly Greene on 08/19/2010 - 11:01 am.

    What advocates of net neutrality cannot demonstrate is the need for regulation. The arguments and fear-filled rhetoric cannot point to a single, substantive example of why the government must inject itself into regulation of the Internet. We have a free and open Internet today–one that doesn’t have government dictating how it operates.

  3. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 08/19/2010 - 11:04 am.

    The internet has grown and prospered due the lack of government regulation and interference, not because of it.

    Democrats like Franken want to tax and regulate everything in our society. Let the market decide. Let content owners determine the price of their products. There’s nothing wrong with charging for premium content. The cable TV companies do it, the newspaper websites do it, and government should stay out of it.

  4. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 08/19/2010 - 12:27 pm.

    And Comcast is also trying to buy MSNBC, which would give it control not just of news, information and entertainment delivery but of the CONTENT now provided by MSNBC and NBC and any other info source owned by MSNBC as well.

    When we make or receive phone calls, the corporate owners of the equipment and infrastructure that enables them to connect two phones to each other are not allowed to censor or delay what we say to one another.

    And nor should any provider of the physical, technical means of moving information through the internet be allowed for one minute to censor or delay that information in order to enrich themselves by a few million more dollars from other corporate giants.

  5. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 08/19/2010 - 02:26 pm.

    Bernice, until the measurable nightmare scenarios you describe are actually happening and not the figment of someone’s imagination, government should stay out of regulating the internet.

    Once government claims the right to regulate something, they can tax it and decide how it’s run. No thanks.

  6. Submitted by Mary Ellen Amodeo on 08/19/2010 - 03:46 pm.

    Can we watch tonight’s discussion via the Internet, livestream?

  7. Submitted by Sharon Schmickle on 08/19/2010 - 04:25 pm.

    Savetheinternet.com says the Uptake’s live stream will be available here http://www.savetheinternet.com/mnhearing .

    It also says you can use the #internetMN hashtag to tweet about the event.

  8. Submitted by Joe Schweigert on 08/20/2010 - 09:30 am.

    Dennis, the point of regulation is to PREVENT nightmare scenarios. Also, the point of net-nuetrality legislation would be to ensure nobody decides how the internet is run. At the very least its a chance for our opinions to be heard via our elected representatives in decisions made by giant companies that will affect our lives. Work to improve the legislation and provide constituent accountability, don’t oppose it on the basis that its “regluation.” Perhaps you are also against anti-trust laws because the government shouldn’t decide how a company is run? Or the geneva conventions because governments shouldn’t decide how war is run?

  9. Submitted by christopher mitchell on 08/20/2010 - 12:38 pm.

    Fascinating that some people have this idea that “the Internet” is not currently regulated and has never been regulated.

    In reality, Government at multiple levels has regulated broadband transmissions (which is what the FCC is currently reasserting its authority to do in the wake of troubling practices by Comcast and suggestions by others to go further).

    When AT&T was required to officially abide by Network Neutrality provisions after merging with BellSouth, the government was regulating.

    When companies like Qwest had to share their lines with other DSL providers (remember back when we had more choices??), that was regulating broadband transmission.

    I do not want the FCC to regulate “the Internet.” But I sure as hell want the FCC to ensure companies like Comcast cannot force me to pay more to visit Fox News than CNN … or Facebook … or Comcastblows.com

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