The end of net neutrality will cripple the First Amendment

FCC chair Ajit Pai

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

The guiding principle behind the First Amendment is that we all have a right to be heard. It is up to each of us, of course, whether we choose to listen. But no one — not the government, and certainly not the giant corporations that control so much of our communications infrastructure — may prevent anyone’s speech from competing in “the marketplace of ideas.”

But now that the internet has become by far the most important and prevalent means for conveying free speech, the demise of the First Amendment may be at hand. If, as expected, the Federal Communications Commission votes on Dec. 14 to do away with net neutrality, then the distribution of news, information, and entertainment will become utterly dependent on the whims of internet service providers (ISPs) such as Comcast and Verizon. If you want your website to load quickly and be easily accessible, then you may have to pay a fee to the ISPs. And if you can’t afford it, well, too bad.

Net neutrality is the idea that all internet traffic should be treated equally — that ISPs shouldn’t be able to speed up some services that are willing to pay and slow down or even block others. A hot topic for many years, it was finally enacted as a binding rule by President Obama’s FCC in 2015. With President Trump now in charge, though, the FCC has a new Republican chair — former (and, no doubt, future) telecom lawyer Ajit Pai — and a three-to-two Republican majority.

Hypotheticals put forth by net-neutrality advocates tend to focus on non-journalistic scenarios. For instance, in 2004, according to a Daily Dot round-up of net-neutrality violations, a North Carolina telecom called Madison River Communications blocked Vonage as it was attempting to launch its voice-over-internet phone service. The problem, you see, was that Vonage threatened Madison River’s landline business. The FCC, then as now under Republican control, fined Madison River $15,000, which just goes to show that dog-eat-dog capitalism was not always a matter of GOP orthodoxy. In 2011, reports the media-reform organization Free Press, Verizon blocked the Google Wallet payment system so that it could promote its own software instead. There are plenty of other examples as well.

The threat to journalism posed by the end of net neutrality is also very real. Imagine that a major media corporation owns the largest television station and largest newspaper in a given market (now allowed thanks to the FCC’s recent decision to abolish the cross-ownership ban), and that it pays the telecoms a hefty fee to guarantee that its digital platforms will load quickly and play video flawlessly. How can, say, a small start-up news organization compete?

Or imagine a ban on certain types of content — as happened in 2007, when Verizon briefly blocked pro-abortion-rights text messages. As the St. Louis-based commentator Sarah Kendzior wrote Sunday in The Globe and Mail of Toronto:

The threat to net neutrality highlights the reliance on social media and an independent press for political organizing in the digital age. Should net neutrality be eliminated, those avenues will likely become curtailed for much of the public or driven out of business due to loss of revenue. Without the means to freely communicate online, citizens will be far less able to challenge the administration. It doesn’t matter what cause someone prioritizes: The elimination of net neutrality will impede the ability to understand the cause, discuss it and organize around it.

So what is to be done? At this point, it may seem hopeless. The FCC will repeal net neutrality, and that’s the end of it. But there are a few threads we can grasp onto.

For one thing, we are beginning to learn that many of the messages the FCC received in support of ending net neutrality were bot-generated fakes. It’s not clear exactly how many, but Eric Levitz reports in New York magazine that more than a million identical anti-net neutrality messages had a pornhub.com email address. New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman is investigating, and has complained that the FCC is being uncooperative in turning over the documents he needs.

For another, it is possible that the legal system may intervene and keep net neutrality alive. Columbia University law professor Tim Wu wrote in The New York Times last week that “by going this far, the FCC may also have overplayed its legal hand. So drastic is the reversal of policy (if, as expected, the commission approves Mr. Pai’s proposal next month), and so weak is the evidence to support the change, that it seems destined to be struck down in court.”

Finally, it’s never over until it’s over. Last week Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democratic member of the FCC, wrote an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times urging the public to speak out and stop the agency from voting for repeal. “Before my fellow FCC members vote to dismantle net neutrality, they need to get out from behind their desks and computers and speak to the public directly,” she said. “The FCC needs to hold hearings around the country to get a better sense of how the public feels about the proposal.”

Despite all this, it is more likely than not that the FCC will repeal net neutrality. What options will we then have? Perhaps a company with real financial power, such as Google or Amazon, will roll out its own network, with net neutrality guaranteed. All you would have to lose is your privacy, or what little remains of it. Or, as this Vice story recommends, we should encourage the development of local ISPs, including municipally owned systems. (Thanks to the indefatigable Saul Tannenbaum for sending me the link.)

It would all be so much easier, though, if the FCC did the right thing. If you favor keeping net neutrality, what is the best way of registering your views? The FCC website is a maze. But Free Press has started a petition urging Pai to cancel the Dec. 14 vote and leave net neutrality in place. As a journalist, I rarely take direct political action except in matters like this, where freedom of speech and of the press is at stake. I’ve signed, and I hope you’ll consider doing so as well.

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The final days of net neutrality?

We may be in the final days of net neutrality if President Trump’s FCC gets its way. I wrote this for WGBH News last April.

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The closing of the internet: Why online privacy and net neutrality matter to all of us

Jim Sensenbrenner. Photo (cc) 2008 by the Leadership Conference on Human and Civil Rights.

It’s hard to imagine a less likely viral video sensation than Republican congressman Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin. But there he was last week, all 73 years of him, wagging his finger at a constituent concerned about online privacy and telling her, “Nobody’s got to use the internet.”

Sensenbrenner’s lecture was a clarifying moment in the debate over the future of online privacy and digital democracy. After eight years of the Obama administration, whose telecommunications policies were more often than not in the public interest, President Trump and his Republican allies are rushing headlong into a future that is of, by and for the telecom companies. It’s a debate that hasn’t gotten nearly as much attention as it should — and that could set the tone for how we communicate with one another for at least a generation.

Read the rest at WGBHNews.org. And talk about this post on Facebook.

Tell the White House we need to preserve net neutrality

Normally I’m not a big fan of journalists’ signing petitions. But preserving net neutrality is so fundamental to what we do that we should all send President Obama a strong message. We need net neutrality to provide the public with the information it needs for self-government — it’s that basic.

This particular petition is endorsed by Tim Wu, who literally coined the phrase. I haven’t checked out all the prominent supporters, but I know that Jeff Jarvis is among them. If the possibility of democratic media is important to you, please sign.

And here is some background on net neutrality from Free Press.

The Internet, 1982-2014

So much for democratic media. So much for a level playing field. It was fun while it lasted.

Net neutrality and the future of journalism

This article was originally published by the media-reform organization Free Press and is posted here by permission. Josh Stearns is the journalism and public media campaign director for Free Press. You can follow him on Twitter at @jcstearns.

Josh portraitBy Josh Stearns

Tuesday’s court decision, which struck down the FCC’s open Internet order and threatened the future of net neutrality, has huge implications for the future of journalism and press freedom.

According to the Pew Research Center, half of all Americans now cite the Internet as their “main source for national and international news.” For young people the number is 71 percent. While we are nowhere near stopping the presses or tearing down the broadcast towers, the Internet is increasing how we distribute and consume the news today.

The future of journalism is bound up in the future of the Internet.

That is why net neutrality is so important and why the court decision this week should worry digital journalists and publishers. For newsrooms the decision means that a company like AT&T or Verizon could decide where their users can go for news and what stories get buried or blocked online. Verizon could strike a deal with CNN and hamper their users’ ability to access alternative news sources. Comcast could slow access to Al Jazeera, because it wants to promote its NBC news offerings.*

That’s why, in 2010, U.S. Sen. Al Franken argued that “net neutrality is the First Amendment issue of our time.”

No journalist or publisher should be held hostage by the commercial or political whims of an Internet service provider. In the end, however, the biggest media companies aren’t likely worried about this court decision. As Stacey Higginbotham wrote:

In many ways this will be a win for the large content companies such as Disney or Viacom. Yes, they might have to pay for prioritization on the broadband networks, but they have deep pockets and such a move would help them ensure their content continues to reach consumer eyeballs as the television industry fragments online. It’s possible we could see the emergence of a pay TV bundle of content that is either exempt from caps or just delivered with pristine quality while YouTube videos sputter.

But it is not just sputtering YouTube videos we need to worry about. It is people’s ability to access the independent journalism and diverse voices, which have thrived on the Web.

In 2009 a coalition of nearly 50 online journalism innovators sent a letter to the FCC, calling on the commissioners to protect the open Internet. “Net Neutrality ensures that innovative local news websites and national nonprofit reporting projects can be accessed just as easily as legacy media sites,” they wrote. “Net Neutrality encourages journalists to pioneer new tools and modes of reporting and lowers the bar for citizens to participate.”

Net neutrality is about creating a level playing field for all voices.

In an ironic twist, when it argued against net neutrality at the federal appeals court, Verizon claimed it actually had a First Amendment right to block and censor Internet users. And while the court largely ignored Verizon’s First Amendment claims, its ultimate decision essentially gave Verizon the green light begin “editing” the Internet.

As more and more news and information moves online, we need to ensure that the flow of online information is free and unencumbered. Traditional battles over press freedom are critical, as the recent Committee to Protect Journalists report so clearly showed, but today we also have to understand that keeping the Internet free goes hand in hand with keeping the press free.

The court decision this week is bad news for the Internet and for independent media, but it is not the last word in this debate.

The Federal Communications Commission can reclassify broadband as what it is: the fundamental communications infrastructure of our time. That simple action would re-establish its legal authority and ensure that its can protect consumers and journalists from online discrimination. Protecting freedom of the press can’t stop online.

* Because of the conditions placed on their deal to buy NBC in 2011, Comcast has to abide by net neutrality principles until 2018 regardless of this court case.

Net neutrality and the politics of pizza

Imagine living in a world in which Domino’s could pay your phone company to make it impossible for you to call other pizza joints. That can’t happen because, legally, phone services are considered “common carriers,” which must accept all traffic in a non-discriminatory manner. Which is what the battle over net neutrality is all about.

This week the FCC’s three Democrats backed a too-weak proposal to ensure net neutrality that the Republicans vowed to oppose anyway. I don’t pretend to understand all the technical arcana, but, according to news reports like this one, net neutrality will be more or less assured on wired broadband networks such as cable and FIOS, while the market will have its way on wireless networks.

Which network do you suppose will be more important in 10 years — or two, for that matter? Wired or wireless?

Take a look at this post on Engadget, which obtained an actual proposal for wireless broadband providers to charge extra for access to Facebook, Skype and YouTube. It’s a variation on a theme that Sen. Al Franken sounded in a must-read essay. Franken points out that, without net neutrality, Verizon could block Google Maps and charge you extra to use its own inferior mapping service. Franken writes:

Imagine if big corporations with their own agenda could decide who wins or loses online. The Internet as we know it would cease to exist. That’s why net neutrality is the most important free speech issue of our time.

Back when the debate was over media concentration, old-school conservative organizations like the National Rifle Association and the Christian Coalition made common cause with liberal groups to stop the FCC from making a bad situation worse. Unfortunately, the newly ascendant Tea Party right is so hostile to government activism that it opposes efforts to ensure net neutrality.

This week’s action by the FCC was not definitive. Net neutrality is an issue that we’ll be revisiting again and again in the years ahead. But given President Obama’s stated support for neutrality, this may be as good as it gets. And it’s not very good.

To learn more, and to take action, visit Free Press.

What Google and Verizon were really up to

Samuel Axton, writing at Mashable, is unstinting in his assessment of last week’s New York Times report that Google and Verizon were secretly negotiating a deal that would undermine net neutrality for their own benefit. The two companies yesterday announced a proposed regulatory framework that would more or less guarantee net neutrality on broadband land lines, but allow wireless providers to operate with fewer regulations. Axton writes:

The proposal we’re seeing is starkly different from what was described in The New York Times article from last week that accused Google and Verizon of conspiring to upend the principles of net neutrality. We didn’t believe it even then, and Google CEO Eric Schmidt said in the conference call that “almost all” of what the NYT reported was “completely wrong.” In particular, he stressed that this is not a business deal at all between Verizon and Google, but simply a joint policy statement.

You wouldn’t know it from reading today’s Times, which cites “reports that Google and Verizon had come to a private agreement.” I am not aware of any “reports” making quite that bold a claim except for the initial story in the Times, which Google and Verizon almost immediately said was wrong.

Still, there’s plenty not to like about the framework that Google and Verizon have proposed. As Jeff Jarvis points out at Buzz Machine, a wireless, ubiquitous connection is quickly becoming what we mean when think of the Internet. Guaranteeing net neutrality for a land-line network that may soon be obsolete not exactly in keeping with Google’s “Don’t Be Evil” philosophy. Jarvis writes:

Mobile will very soon become a meaningless word when — well, if telcos allow it, that is — we are connected everywhere all the time. Then who cares where you are? Mobile? doesn’t matter. You’re just connected. In your car, in your office, in your bedroom, on the street. You’re connected. To what? To the internet, damnit.

The Save the Internet Coalition puts it this way: “Google-Verizon Pact Worse Than Feared.” The FCC needs to be able to put a stop to this.

Earlier coverage here and here.

Now it’s the Times versus Google and Verizon

For now, at least, it looks like the New York Times is doubling down on its report that Google and Verizon are negotiating a deal that would allow Verizon to offer tiered levels of service for content-providers — a deal that would severely undermine the principle of net neutrality.

In a follow-up today, the Times’ Edward Wyatt reports that FCC chairman Julius Genachowski would oppose such a deal. The story continues:

His remarks came in response to press reports that Google and Verizon were nearing an agreement about broadband management that could clear the way for Verizon to consider offering such a service. The two companies declined to comment on any potential deal.

You will note that the link to “press reports” (plural) brings you to Wyatt’s Thursday story (singular), now disputed by Google. Indeed, writing that Google and Verizon have declined to comment may be true in a technical sense, but it strikes me as disingenuous given Google’s full-throated denial. Verizon has since denied it as well.

Scott Morrison of Dow Jones has more on the sniping between the Times and the two companies, quoting Google spokeswoman Mistique Cano as saying, “The New York Times is quite simply wrong. We have not had any conversations with Verizon about paying for carriage of Google or YouTube traffic.”

But Times spokeswoman Diane McNulty says her paper is sticking by its story, commenting, “Google’s comment about the New York Times story refutes something the Times story didn’t say.”

A Times commenter, Dan K of Brooklyn (not me, I swear!), has some links to other coverage that raise the possibility that Google is pursuing separate strategies regarding Verizon’s broadband and cellular networks, and that the Times may have confused the two.

But the Times story, if accurate, is a huge embarrassment for Google, which has long been a corporate leader in the fight to preserve the principle that all Internet traffic should be treated equally. Net neutrality is what allowed an upstart like Google to become a major media player in the first place, and it’s fostered independent news outlets ranging from Talking Points Memo to the guy in his mother’s basement who blogs about local zoning issues.

Save the Internet has responded to all this with a new campaign called “Dear Google: Don’t Be Evil.”

The closing of the Internet*

Imagine you are trying to start a news site in your community. Your competitor, part of a national chain, offers instant-on, full-screen HD video and a host of other data-intensive features that load the moment you hit “click.” But though you have a broadband connection, even simple videos that you’ve posted load slowly and play in fits and starts.

So you call your Internet provider — most likely Verizon and Comcast — and ask what’s going on. A sales person explains to you that if you want your readers to enjoy the same rich multimedia content as you competitor, then all you have to do is pay another $1,000 a month.

You can’t. You struggle on. And, within six months, you shut down.

That is a likely scenario if we move away from net neutrality — a vitally important principle that all Internet traffic should be treated the same. The FCC has been trying to mandate net neutrality, only to be shot down in the federal courts. And today the New York Times reports that Google and Verizon have been involved in negotiations to come up with a multi-tiered Internet with different levels of service and different levels of pricing. [Update: Or perhaps not. See below.]

“It’s like the end of ‘Animal Farm’ where pigs and humans sit down at the dinner table,” tweeted new-media strategist Steve Yelvington. In fact, Google at one time had been a leader in pushing for net neturality.

Please understand what net neutrality is not. There is nothing wrong with charging consumers more for better Internet service. Broadband costs more than dial-up, and fast broadband costs more than slow broadband. That’s life.

Rather, this involves the other end of the pipe, to fees that content-providers would pay in order to receive preferential service. It would make it far more difficult for start-ups, low-budget projects and non-profits to compete with big media sites. You might say that’s the whole idea.

Net neutrality is the baseline requirement for diverse, independent media. Those of us who spent years railing against corporate media consolidation have been pleasantly surprised, as numerous little guys — including significant players at the international, national and local levels — have been able to make their voices heard.

Along with the advent of closed systems such as Apple’s iPad and iPhone, the demise of net neutrality could mark the beginning of the end of this media explosion, and a return to business as usual.

Josh Silver, president of the advocacy organization Free Press, calls the pending Google-Verizon deal “the end of the Internet as we know it.” Timothy Karr, campaign director of Free Press, offers some further thoughts.

For more information, including what you can do, check out Save the Internet.

*Update: Sharp-eyed reader Nick Mendez found a tweet from Google Public Policy claiming that the Times got the story wrong. According to @googlepubpolicy: “@NYTimes is wrong. We’ve not had any convos with VZN about paying for carriage of our traffic. We remain committed to an open internet.”

Wow. This bears watching. Will the Times retract the story?