Equally threatening to journalists’ and others’ online future has been FCC reluctance to guarantee a truly open internet. The secret of a thriving internet is that users, not gatekeepers, control their online experiences. The core idea of the open internet is that consumers should be free to access the lawful content of their choice, run the applications they prefer, and enjoy the benefits of transparency and non-discrimination by preventing internet service providers from favoring their own businesses over others. This is not just to encourage competition; it is also to maintain a free flow of information so citizens are able to access a diversity of providers. Permitting Verizon, AT&T, or Comcast to control access to information is a direct and unacceptable threat to our democracy—and to you as journalists, since gatekeepers can separate you from your audience for any reason they choose.
Some claim that internet freedom is a solution in search of a problem. Yet there has been no lack of attempted gatekeeping in numerous cases such as AT&T’s restricting FaceTime, Madison River, and the well-known instance of Comcast throttling BitTorrent, which struck me as purposefully slowing certain applications on its networks and discriminating in a way that threatened the freedom end-users expect. Now AT&T is talking about a “sponsored data” plan wherein deep-pocketed content providers could pay for quicker carriage than small sites could afford.
The FCC that took shape when Obama became president went on-record quickly in favor of an open internet. While this was a welcome pledge, the devil was in the details. The new administration was reluctant to get into a bare-knuckle fight with powerful industries, so the incoming FCC chairman opted instead for what he thought would be the best of two worlds—mild network protections that would show the FCC was doing something, even as it avoided tough rules that would cause a fight-to-the-finish with the corporate titans. Industry was invited in to help craft the guidelines, but then took even these watered-down rules to court. This January, the DC Circuit Court of Appeals invalidated the commission’s rules. Unless the FCC responds, internet service providers are free to fashion the internet into something like cable television, with the most desirable news and information behind pricey pay-tiers. It is a very real threat to the delivery of news. Under the current rules, a big cable company could block access to an investigative report about its less-than-stellar customer service. Such frightening scenarios should galvanize anyone who cares about journalistic freedom.
Interestingly, the court said that if the commission had treated broadband as a “telecommunications” rather than an “information” service, consumer protection would have been on solid ground. Hopefully, the FCC will move quickly to reclassify these services as telecommunications—and then write tough rules to actually get the job done. But armies of lobbyists and wheelbarrows of money stand in the way. It is testing time for the new FCC Chairman and his colleagues.
During my 10 years at the FCC, I took part in literally scores of town hall meetings and community forums all across America to tell people what I saw happening and to learn more about their personal experiences with our communications ecosystem. Several of these sessions lasted over six hours and drew hundreds of citizens.
In some places these meetings would attract media attention; in others they would go uncovered. It didn’t take me long to figure out why the disparities. If a community’s media was under consolidated control—with a large and distant company owning the major broadcast and, often, newspaper outlets—the coverage would usually be somewhere between slim and none. But if I was visiting a town where independent media still existed and locally employed journalists were on the beat, there would be advance notice that a meeting was going to happen; there would often be live TV coverage; and the event would be reported in detail, often on the front page of the local paper.
I am not a conspiracy theorist. I don’t see these issues as good guys vs. bad guys. Yet there is more than sheer coincidence involved in the differentiated coverage that I, and many like-minded advocates, received in different media marketplaces. I see what happened as the sadly predictable results of a system where the Wall Street mantra is: play the game or be voted off the island. The dismal options for the small, independent owner too often reduce to selling out to a giant or watching the business fail. It’s what happens when public interest oversight goes AWOL.