The Internet has proven itself valuable in two significant ways: promoting democratic expression and fueling innovation. Despite rhetorical clouds that are forming, we should keep our eyes on these two brass rings.
Let’s pretend we’re not debating the jargony topic known as “net neutrality.” Instead, let’s just concentrate on the values of freedom and commerce. Both of these values are bolstered as most of the world gets access to the Internet.
It now is impossible to bottle up information and opinions. Schools and churches can’t do it. Oppressive regimes and desperate despots can’t do it. The NSA can’t even do it. When people can connect to the Internet, they are empowered to share knowledge and air grievances.
In the realm of business, the Internet has fostered entrepreneurship, super charged productivity and spawned a new breed of investors. Forty years ago, could most business persons have even guessed what a “startup” was? But the Internet doesn’t come free.
Corporations that invested in Internet infrastructure want a financial return. For instance, they’d like to sell fast transmission service to companies that are willing to pay top dollar, and force poorer competitors to rely on sluggish service.
It is easy to see how this would benefit established companies, like Time Warner Cable, while crippling startups, nonprofits and independent content creators (maybe your nephew, who’s launching that business from his garage). How far could this go? If an Internet provider is seeking a franchise from a foreign government, could it offer to ban some political or religious content from the Internet altogether?
The Federal Communications Commission tried to write rules to preserve a level playing field. Mega-corporations dragged the agency into court earlier this year, and a judge decided the regulations exceeded the FCC’s authority.
Ahhh, what’s a federal commissioner to do? Unfortunately, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler decided to throw out the baby — but keep the bathwater. He’s now circulating a draft proposal that would prohibit Internet providers from banning any users outright, but otherwise allow most forms of financial discrimination.
Critics, like advocacy group Free Press, point out the FCC has other options. For instance, it could undo an earlier decision and try to classify Internet providers as “common carriers,” the same as phone companies.
For the FCC to take a fair approach to net neutrality, it will need support and legal clarifications from Congress, where a majority has usually grasped the need to protect online innovation and freedom. This is not the time to abandon those commitments.