A federalappeals court ruling against the FCC’s ability to ensure equal access toall content on the Internet is an ominous stumbling block.  In effect, theruling opens the door for service providers, like cable companies and phonecompanies, to charge fees to those who want to use more bandwidth than theaverage geek, instead of giving everyone equal access to the Internet (aconcept known as net neutrality). 

 

Comcast had claimed the right to create a slow lane for itscustomers trying to access the BitTorrent file-sharing service, and manyobservers predict this path could lead to faster connections only for thosewilling to pay a fee.  For example, YouTube could be charged a fee todeliver high-definition videos to site visitors.  No one is yetspeculating on how such sites would recover those costs—but I bet you can makean educated guess. 

 

The ruling also endangers President Obama’s nationalbroadband plan.  Agencies have moved ahead with designating billionsfor extending broadband to rural areas, dollars that the FCC plans to transferfrom phone service to Internet service.  The court ruling appears toindicate that the FCC does not have the authority to make that transfer.

 

The Web is too important to every student, instructor,consumer, business, traveler, healthcare facility, library and even lawyer tobe subjected to the fee vagaries of service providers, who would be able toslow or block some sites and charge others if the recent ruling holds.  The ‘Net should be treated as a public utility, because that is what itis.  Look what’s happened to airlines since they’ve been deregulated—nowit’s not enough to pay $50 roundtrip to check a baggage; Spirit Airlines isgoing to chargeyou $90 more roundtrip to put your carry-on bag in the overhead bin.

 

Not everyone needs to fly every day, of course, and the roleof airlines in American life is far from that of a utility.  But everyone doesneed to use the Internet every day, even if in unseen ways.  Behind thescenes, banks, schools, checkout clerks, nurses and thousands of otherprofessions depend on the Internet to gather, store and transfer data. The creation of a fast lane for those content providers who can afford to pay,and a slow lane for those who can’t, would threaten to demolish the levelingeffect that the Internet has brought to education, entrepreneurship andentertainment. 

 

Without equal access, everyone will indeed know that you’rea dog on the Internet.  As reported in The New York Times,innovation would suffer greatly from restrictions on Internet access:

 

“You can’t have innovation if all the big companies get thefast lane,” said Gigi B. Sohn, president of Public Knowledge, which advocatesfor consumer rights on digital issues. “Look at Google, eBay, Yahoo — none of those companieswould have survived if 15 years ago we had a fast lane and a slow lane on theInternet.”

 

No service providers have as yetindicated that they intend to establish what the Times report called“toll roads for broadband,” but intentions are not commitments.  FCCChairman Julius Genachowski has indicated that losing the court battle wouldprompt his agency to look for some other legal authority to protect consumers,and Congress can pass legislation giving explicit authority to the FCC toregulate Internet service.

 

Such legislation isessential.  We’ve come too far together for inequalities once again topull us apart.

 

— Steve Friedman