It’s no small irony that President Barack Obama supported protections for an open Internet on the same day he arrived in China, a nation that notoriously controls and censors Internet communications.
The president is trying to protect Americans from having their Internet access and usage manipulated by a dictatorship of the nation’s Internet providers. But in the United States, unlike China, keeping the Internet free requires giving a government agency, the Federal Communications Commission, the power to ensure “Net neutrality.” The term means that information moving on the Internet – except for illegal material, such as child pornography – is treated equally and not subject to blockages, slowdowns or special tolls determined by providers.
Net neutrality conflicts with the desire of Internet providers like Verizon, AT&T, Comcast and Time Warner Cable to establish “fast lanes” for which users pay more to move data at higher speeds. They say that traffic controls and high-speed lanes are a natural evolution of the nation’s information superhighway and that government regulations will slow commerce and innovation.
“We are stunned the president would abandon the longstanding, bipartisan policy of lightly regulating the Internet and calling for extreme” regulation, said Michael Powell, president and CEO of the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, the primary lobbying arm of the cable industry.
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But the industry’s call for “freedom” is really a demand that those who control the means of Internet communications be able to shape the flow and character of Internet content. The president and other advocates of Net neutrality say a truly free Internet will be shaped by the tastes and needs of consumers, not by the monopolies that control the pipelines.
Netflix, a company that streams movies over the Internet, has won the favor of consumers who’ve “cut the cord” to avoid paying high cable fees. Now Internet providers want to charge heavy data transmitters more, a demand Netflix has already met. Such extra charges limit options and drive up costs to consumers. Netflix correctly said in a Facebook posting that “consumers should pick winners and losers on the Internet, not broadband gatekeepers.”
To ensure Net neutrality, the president called on the FCC to treat Net providers like public utilities just as phone companies are regulated. “It is common sense that the same philosophy should guide any service that is based on the transmission of information – whether a phone call, or a packet of data,” Obama said.
The FCC endorsed that approach in 2010, but in 2013 a federal appeals court ruled that the agency lacked proper authority to regulate Internet providers. The major cable companies will likely find favor in the Republican-controlled Congress for new laws to protect their control of the Internet. Fortunately, it’s now clear the Obama would veto such legislation.
The FCC should move to protect Net neutrality. When Internet providers file lawsuits in response, the FCC’s authority should be upheld by the courts. The Internet is becoming the main transmitter of communications in the United States. How it responds to the public’s needs should not be left to phone companies and especially not to the cable titans that have have already established records of high monopoly pricing and wretched consumer service.