It’s been a bad few months for the principle that the internet should remain a neutral platform on which all content can flow on equal terms. A federal appeals court in January nullified the Federal Communications Commission’s rules. Soon thereafter Comcast announced it would buy TimeWarner, which would give it control of 37 percent of broadband access. And Netflix hinted at the dark future way of things by paying Comcast to guarantee smooth flow of its video.
Attention has so far focused on how the closing internet could cause problems for particular businesses like Netflix, but flash forward and one can see other problems. If we end up with a system in which bigger players get better service, what will happen to smaller players? Or non-profit groups, shoe-string startups or local news operations? It’s not hard to imagine that a citizen blog or even a local digital news operation could struggle if it had to also pay a “premium streaming” fee for their news video. And what happens if a human rights group has to pay extra to stream its videos of overseas torture? Or if educational groups have to pay tolls to do online courses? Or if doctors want to offer telemedicine services to patients?
Suddenly (or more likely, gradually) the internet will resemble, well, television.
The first, and most important, line of defense revolves around the remedies already most discussed: open internet rules and anti-trust actions, both crucially important. But if these approaches prove porous, they can be supplemented.
In an earlier era when new technologies arose, the public interest was advanced through other interventions on behalf of taxpayers. For instance, when the government first started giving out valuable broadcast licenses, they didn’t merely offer guidelines for what commercial stations should cover, they created a separate “non-commercial” broadcasting system. In 1952, the FCC set aside spectrum (owned by the public) to create 242 TV channels for “educational” use. Over the years, about one fourth of channels have been set aside for non-commercial purposes.
Modern policy toward the internet should have that same goal: when the public uses taxpayer resources in a way that benefits commercial players, some of the value -perhaps one fourth of it—should be reserved for educational or nonprofit purposes.
How might that work?
Re-write cable TV franchise rules. Cable TV companies get their permission to operate (and tear up the streets and run through your backyard) from the communities and states in which they operate. Local governments have in the past put a variety of conditions on these contracts, including the well-intended set-aside for public access channels. Now state governments should make public interest demands on cable providers in their capacity as internet service providers. They could guarantee net neutrality or, short of that, offer a free-and-fast option for nonprofit groups. What’s more, they should be required to carry and subsidize state C-Spans. All public government meetings should be aired, on air, on cable, or online. Cable and phone companies shouldn’t get franchises unless they’re willing to help make that happen.
Stop stomping on local internet solutions. One of the least-reported outrages of recent years is the successful campaign by cable and TV to block local governments from creating their own wifi networks. They haven’t fought the idea in the market place, i.e., by persuading consumers that their service is better. Rather they lobbied to get 19 state legislatures—including Florida, Texas, Michigan, and Pennsyslvania—to prohibit localities from crafting their own local solutions. One of the most important ways to assure an open internet—and better quality—is through greater competition. The FCC recently hinted that they may start making noise about these rules. Voters should not allow ISPs to block competition, and businesses who fear government regulation should recognize that net neutrality would become less necessary if there were more competition.
Public spectrum for the public good. The government will soon auction off more spectrum for use by mobile internet carriers. It’s probably not feasible to literally set aside particular slices of spectrum for non-profits (though I’m open to suggestions on how, technically, that might work!) But certainly the value could at least be shared in other ways. For instance, Congress or the FCC could decide that 25 percent of the proceeds of future spectrum auctions would go to local funds geared around helping nonprofit entities or lower-income residents gain high-quality access—or perhaps toward the creation of municipal wifi networks. Congress has already decreed that some of the auction proceeds go to a public safety network, so let’s broaden the discussion about what other missions might be met. It’s the public’s spectrum; the public should demand more for it.
Media merger tax. Some media or communication company mergers should just be flat-out blocked on anti-competitive grounds. But others might be allowed on the condition that a portion of the transaction value—one fourth?—would go toward efforts to insure that the public—including the nonprofit sector, Americans of modest means, educational entities, and nonprofit news organizations—would benefit.
Nonprofit fast lanes? Some have suggested requiring fast lanes specifically for news sites, perhaps limited to those with .news web domains. I’m sympathetic to this, in theory. The founding fathers subsidized periodicals, through lower postal rates, because they viewed a well-informed citizenry as essential to democracy. But I’m skeptical that it could be done in practice. How would we define “news” for those purposes? So I lean toward something that promotes competition and assists the nonprofit sector, which is easier to define.
There may, however, be some ways that these public interest remedies can indirectly or directly help journalism. Requiring cable TV operators and ISPs to underwrite a revolution in public access to the workings of government will help journalists (pro and am) better monitor government. More directly, some of the funds generated by the above schemes could actually go to subsidize nonprofit journalism. I know this is a controversial topic; there’s broad resistance to fees or tax dollars going to journalism. But there’s a safe way of using these funds to help media ecosystems: give the money to local journalism schools, on the condition that they have programs to support local journalism.
None of these ideas would be politically easy. They each disrupt a status quo system that’s working well for a handful of companies. But it’s time to think more broadly about which policy levers can advance the public interest in the internet age.Steven Waldman is founder of LifePosts.com, co-founder of Beliefnet, and a former newsmagazine journalist. Tags: Comcast, fastlanes, FCC, net neutrality, Open Internet, public interest