The End of the Commons?

April 22, 2006 on 12:45 pm | In IdBlog, Spin | Add a Comment

In the last 20 years the internet has gone from being a little-used network for geeks and cognoscenti to a global utility. Now as the net is poised to become an uber-network of voice, data and video, our government may be trying to privatize the commons.

Big phone companies, which have recently gotten bigger in a wave of mergers, have been lobbying the FCC to allow packet prioritization. This little administrative change will enable the telcos to set up a tiered service plan, in effect creating an internet fast lane for those who can afford it and relegating the rest of us to bandwidth backwaters.

No doubt telcos like AT&T and Verizon are concerned about VOIP and eager to get a piece of the coming internet TV boom. They say the institution of this pay-to-play policy will help subsidize network upgrades to fiber-optic cable. But don’t we already subsidize them with those fat checks we write every month?

So far the FCC seems more than sympathetic to AT&T’s plight. That’s not surprising since the chairman of the FCC, Kevin Martin, is a former telecommunications lobbyist (see also this Forbes article on Martin). While the other Bush appointees on the Federal Communications Commission have largely been silent on this issue, Martin told an industry conference last January that he is in favor of both tiered access and network neutrality.

This seems to be a deliberate obfuscation. Once common carriers like Verizon and AT&T are allowed to prioritize information according to who pays the most, network neutrality goes out the window.

Congress has not been idle on this issue. Several bills are working their way through committees now. Rep. Edward Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts, introduced an amendment to the Communications, Promotion, and Enhancement Act that would have forced the FCC to fine carriers who blocked or degraded signals on their networks. The Republican-led Committee on Energy and Commerce gutted the amendment earlier this month. In the Senate, Senator Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon, introduced his own bill, the Internet Non Discrimination Act, which would prohibit tiered service and selective transmission of information. TMC, an advocate for VOIP businesses, has a detailed report on the legislation here.

The FCC was established by an act of Congress in 1934 to regulate the radio spectrum. It has since come to oversee television and telecommunications because these things were seen as public utilities that serve the common good. The internet has become the greatest public utility in the world. It is at once a marketplace, a communication medium, a library and an entertainment center. If the FCC did allow telcos to sort and grade the information that passed over their wires, wouldn’t that be a form of cash-based censorship? That would put America in the same class with Burma and China, two nations that censor information for political ends. Moreover, it’s bad for business — creating a tiered access system to the web would stifle innovation and hurt small businesses. It would be shortsighted indeed to impair this country’s long-term economic viability just to make a few well-connected telcos a lot richer.

A good summary of this issue appeared in The New Yorker last month. Moveon.org has yet another petition to sign and I would be happy to hear from anybody with a workable scheme to enforce network neutrality in the commons.

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