With the Federal Communications Commission's proposed rule changes that could sound the death knell for Net Neutrality, context matters. And the context within which citizens must operate who want to defend a free and open Internet is one of relentless corporate lobbying and political power.
For years now the corporate Internet Service Providers (ISPs) have been pushing for a tiered system of Internet delivery. They want the FCC to allow them to construct "fast lanes" and "slow lanes" on the Internet.
Such a system would enable ISP companies to create false scarcity, roadblocks, and slow-as-molasses Internet service on their basic plans to compel people and businesses to pay tolls, fees, and rents in exchange for access to the faster lanes on the "information superhighway."
There's money to be made by creating cul-de-sacs on the Net for those who refuse to shell out the bucks while getting backdoor payola from connected corporations jockeying for sweet spots on custom-made search engines or special access to broadband streaming.
If they succeed in pushing through these proposed FCC rule changes, it will not only end Net Neutrality, but also give birth to a new monopolistic system of corporate control over the Internet. Profit-hungry ISPs will reserve the speedier service for those who can afford to pay. They'll jack consumers and stifle innovation.
Today, just about everybody's lives are intermediated in some way -- for work or play, research or communications -- by access to an open and neutral Internet. This is why the simplest solution would be for the FCC to label the Internet a telecommunications system (which it is) as proposed by Senator Al Franken of Minnesota. This would allow the FCC to pursue sensible regulations that maintain Net Neutrality and stave off (for now) the corporate vultures.
The corporate-friendly FCC, like so many other pro-corporate regulatory policies, can be traced back to the Reagan administration. Reagan's FCC Chairman, Mark Fowler, was a gung-ho proponent of deregulating the industry and saw no downside to the trend toward oligopoly.
"It's time to move away from thinking of broadcasters as trustees," he said, "and time to treat them the way everyone else in this society does, that is, as a business. Television is just another appliance. It's a toaster with pictures." (Quoted in Palermo, The Eighties, 2013 p. 74)
Those lobbying the FCC to torpedo Net Neutrality, along with some of the Commission's members, share Chairman Fowler's outlook. They see the Internet as nothing more than "a business."
But the business model of Wheeler's corporate buddies will be a disaster if it is applied in any substantial way to the Internet. The Net is not a "toaster with pictures," neither is it an entertainment device, but the telecommunications spine of the planet.
The proposed Comcast-Time Warner and AT&T-DirecTV mergers (nearing $50 billion each) should give us pause in changing the rules of the game at this time to favor such corporate behemoths. And with the Supreme Court's attacks on laws limiting corporations from making campaign contributions -- Citizens United (2010) and McCutcheon (2014) -- along with other rulings, an expansive set of legal precedents have come down that have had the effect of handing even more power to corporations in our politics.
The charge of the FCC since its creation during the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration was to protect the "public interest" from those who would use their power to monopolize the nation's communications systems to serve their own narrow interests. If the FCC continues down this path where "Democratic" and "Republican" members become servants of corporate power and the five-member board becomes the latest example of "regulatory capture" the Internet as we know it is in big trouble.
This proposed corporate implementation of "fast lanes" and "dirt roads" on the Internet could be even more costly to our society than we can imagine.
The Internet has its own ecology; its own epistemology. It not only directs our knowledge of the world, but our knowledge of ways of knowing as well. It has become so deeply embedded in our everyday lives that we're largely unconscious of its effects. The changes in how humans think and negotiate reality that the Internet has ushered in are as potentially transformative as the creation of the alphabet or the printing press.
Altering the openness of this miraculous invention that you are using right now to read these words in order to further the narrow pursuit of corporate profits will have a more profound effect on our understanding of the unrealized potential of the Internet than we are now even capable of seeing.
The Internet is also part of the Commons, and like all other public resources it has come under corporate assault. That's why the FCC has to do what is right and consistent with its charge: protect the people's open access by calling it what it is, a telecommunications system, and hold the pack of corporate wolves at bay.
If corporations gain control of the flow of information in America it will go a long way in consolidating the corporate State that the Roberts Court seems hell bent on giving us. In the current context of runaway corporate power, ending (or even slightly limiting) Net Neutrality could be the pathway to a fully cemented corporate oligarchy.
This is not your garden variety complaint against the corporate state; any step away from Net Neutrality will reinforce the already out-of-control power of some of the worst corporate players in our politics.
We don't need FCC rule changes that benefit giant corporations. We need an FCC that lives up to its original mission of protecting the public interest. We are now in a "public discussion" period until July so ordinary citizens can voice their opinions of the FCC's proposed corporate-friendly policies regarding Net Neutrality.
Like so many other pieces of the corporate agenda, the only place where you find supporters is in Washington where corporate money holds sway. On the other side of the "debate" are the vast majority of people, sometimes called "consumers," who feel it in their bones that they're about to be fleeced yet again. Public outcry already forced Chairman Wheeler to back off his original plan. Let's hope he hears us loud and clear between now and July and understands he's going to be hauled out of town on a rail if he goes through with this unethical corporate give-away.
Now is the time to make it clear to Wheeler and the FCC that we demand our public servants to quit doing the bidding of giant corporations and do what is right: call the Internet a "telecommunications" asset for the people of the United States and protect its neutrality as a public service and part of the Commons.
Follow Joseph A. Palermo on Twitter: www.twitter.com/JosephPalermo1