THE BLOG
09/17/2014 11:45 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2014

Riding the Back of the Digital Bus

Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire

Major telecommunications firms (think Comcast, Verizon, AT&T and the like) want to be able to send you to an Internet slow lane if you don't have enough money pay for topflight service -- or if they simply don't like the information you're sending out.

That's bad for everyone who's not a wealthy corporation, and it's especially bad for low-income folks and communities of color, who could almost literally be made to ride at the back of the digital bus.

The Federal Communications Commission is pondering what to do about the issue of "net neutrality," a rather blah term that describes a simple idea: The company that connects you to the Internet -- whether it's through your computer, your phone, your tablet or whatever -- shouldn't get to pick and choose what information you have access to. Until now, consumers have been able to use any device and access any content on the Internet on an equal basis -- the same access and same treatment whether you're General Motors, Google or a working mom running a home-based business. Providers were not allowed to block websites, slow down access to those websites, or tell you can't connect unless you use the device they want you to use.

Those protections could all go away, depending on what the FCC decides. Not surprisingly, the commission has been deluged with comments -- some three million of them -- from people on all sides of the issue, including the big telecom companies.

What the companies want, it turns out, is no rules at all -- or at least rules so weak and vague that they can't be enforced in any meaningful way.

This could be terrible for small businesses. For example, if the FCC allows "paid prioritization" -- an idea currently on the table -- a huge company like Amazon could pay providers extra so that when you access Amazon.com, you get a superfast, super-reliable connection. That would be fine, except for the fact that every time a provider speeds some web traffic up, it slows the rest of the web traffic down. So while Amazon can afford to pay a bundle for superfast access to its website, a smaller, less wealthy company (like that mom running a home-based business) probably can't.

Consumer advocates have asked for clear rules that guarantee fair and equal service, but the providers want any rules to be squishy, with lots of wiggle room. Comcast, for example, urged that "any minimum level of service that the Commission adopts should be interpreted as a requirement that broadband providers deliver traffic to end users on a 'best efforts' basis." Several other companies, including AT&T and Verizon, used similar language. Translation: They want to be able to say, "I really tried but the dog ate my homework!" and have that be enough.

And that would mean some people would get a second-class Internet, when the telecom giants found it convenient or profitable to shunt them into the slow lanes. Those sent to the back of the bus would inevitably be those with less money or influence. As my colleagues in The Greenlining Institute's telecommunications team put it in their own comments to the FCC, "Allowing carriers to determine the winners and losers of the digital world creates a very real risk of disproportionately harming communities of color."

Public Knowledge, the Benton Foundation, and Access Sonoma Broadband referenced another bit of unhappy history in joint comments, telling the FCC that "a two-tiered Internet ... may result in virtual redlining, whereby some communities simply never have the opportunity to access applications and content that rely on the premium fast lane."

The telecom companies actually singled out low-income consumers as likely second-class digital citizens. Comcast, for example, has touted its "Internet Essentials," a low-cost Internet access program, as an example of why it should be allowed to acquire Time Warner Cable. But Comcast wants Internet Essentials to be exempted from many possible rules, including minimum acceptable connection speeds and the right to connect with any type of device.

As Greenlining's comments to the FCC put it, if the FCC creates such a rule, "The result will be a two-tiered Internet, with low-income consumers and many communities of color relegated to the lower tier."

That cannot be okay. You can ask the FCC to save net neutrality by emailing the Commission at openinternet@fcc.gov.