With his ringing endorsement for strong net neutrality protections, President Obama has joined a public groundswell for the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to reclassify the Internet as a utility. This move would not only enable the agency to remain true to its mandate to regulate in the public interest, it would also, according to the President and many of the nearly 4 million Americans who filed comments with the FCC, promote democratic values of openness, fairness and freedom.
Such overwhelming public support for what may seem like a wonky regulatory debate reminds us that net neutrality is and always has been much more than a technocratic squabble over how Internet "pipes" are managed. It's about the role of media and information in a democratic society, and the role of government—in this case the FCC—to help ensure access to information because, as we all learn in school, democracy requires an informed populace. Put simply, this is about a social contract between information providers, society and government.
"Weak net neutrality regulations risk not only irrelevance for the FCC, but also a loss of legitimacy in the eyes of the public in whose name it regulates."
This contract must include a clear regulatory role for the FCC. Since the market won't automatically provide public goods like information, and since unregulated monopolies can threaten the health of our media system, government oversight is required. Without such authority, the FCC (which celebrated its 80th birthday this year) risks significant constraints and complications going forward. What will be the agency's purpose for the next 80 years, or even the next five? How will the FCC defend the public interest in the digital age—an age of new digital monopolies? Weak net neutrality regulations risk not only irrelevance for the FCC, but also a loss of legitimacy in the eyes of the public in whose name it regulates.
We've been down this road before. In the 1930s and '40s, commercial radio was roughly the same age as today's commercial Internet. It was seen as a revolutionary force that would democratize society, give voice to the voiceless, and educate the masses. And there was a great debate in this country about how that medium should operate: whose interests it should serve, who should own and control it, whether it should remain predominantly commercial or be publicly subsidized with significant obligations to public affairs and educational content.
Once it became clear that a few corporations would dominate radio, the debate turned to specific regulatory questions: If we give broadcasters tremendous benefits— like monopolistic use of the public airwaves—what do they owe society in return? Are they obligated to share this scarce resource to include diverse voices? Is broadcast media primarily an instrument for democracy or for profit? As the medium became increasingly commercialized and ownership more concentrated, regulatory authority became tenuous. Despite admirable attempts to keep broadcasters beholden to the public interest, the FCC fell back on relatively weak regulatory guidelines, like the Fairness Doctrine, and ultimately lost the battle to salvage much of commercial radio and television's democratic potential.
Today we face a similar quandary with the Internet. We're again deciding what information providers are allowed to do with the content that flows through their conduits. Again, we are deciding the future of a key information infrastructure that has a profound impact on our daily lives. And it is, once again, an infrastructure dominated by monopolies. Will we repeat the mistakes of the past and let monopoly power over infrastructure shape the type of content available to the public? Or will we empower the public by safeguarding an open Internet?
Given the technological and economic changes in our communication systems, these questions are especially pressing, and decisions made now may set the Internet's course for decades to come. But without reclassifying the Internet as a telecommunications service, as the President argues, the FCC will not have the authority to maintain an open Internet. Word has leaked that the FCC is considering a "hybrid" plan that would still allow preferential treatment of content with Internet fast and slow lanes—exactly what the President identified as detrimental to the Internet's democratic potential—and would likely be overturned in court. Like we saw with broadcast media in the 1940s, a weak decision by the FCC today that allows internet service providers to become gatekeepers might lead us down a slippery slope of unaccountable information providers and ineffectual regulators.
Net neutrality cannot solve all of the problems facing the Internet—especially lack of competition in the American Internet service marketplace, both from other commercial operators and from alternative models like municipal-owned broadband networks. But without strong protections that ensure all Internet content is treated equally, we may end up with a powerless FCC, few checks on Internet access monopolies who abuse their market power, and a public ill-served by its information system.
The Internet is no longer a luxury for those who can pay or a profitable plaything for a handful of corporations. It is a daily necessity; Americans rely on it not just for entertainment, but also for schoolwork, health and their livelihood. It is much too precious to be left to the mercies of Internet monopolies. It must be protected by an FCC that governs not only in the public's name but also with its consent.