Life In The Fast Lane: You’ll Still Have To Pay For The Privilege Of Accessing The Internet, But For Now The Framework For Net Neutrality and Equal Access Lives On
MARK GOULD, MARCH 1, 2015
Have you ever stopped and thought about why it is that free unfettered access to the Internet has been taken away by a few big corporations over the last 15 years, right before your eyes, yet many Americans don’t seem concerned, or even remember how the net got started. So a very brief history lesson might be in order to put things in proper perspective.
Most people who were around before the Internet remember it was the late 1980’s when the genie came out of the bottle. Once the province of the military, the government and academic researchers, public access to the internet became a reality after years of work by the men and women who pioneered the enabling technology. The Internet was almost entirely non-commercial, access was free at first and then at what was a very affordable price from any number of local service providers, and there was no surveillance. Things have indeed, changed. Media activist and historian Robert McChesney says a lot of people think there isn’t a problem. You can go to any web site you want, whenever you want. It’s what he calls the “Digital Disconnect:”
What’s been taking place—and I think it’s really crystallized in the last five years—is that on a number of different fronts, extraordinarily large, monopolistic corporations have emerged: AT&T, Verizon, Comcast, at the access level; Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon, at the application and use level. And these firms have changed the nature of the Internet dramatically. And they’ve done it by becoming huge monopolies with immense power.
McChesney makes it clear that access to the internet is now controlled by a cartel and your cost to get online is way too much:
The access to the Internet people get in this country is controlled by a cartel, basically, of AT&T, Verizon, with cellphones, and Comcast through cable line. And what we have in this country as a result of that is Americans pay far more for cellphones, they pay far more for broadband wired access, than any other comparable country in the world, and we get much worse service. It has nothing to do with the technology. It has nothing to do with, quote-unquote, “economics.” It has everything to do with corrupt policy making and the power of these firms. And that gives—that gives them the power to basically try to privatize the Internet as much as possible, make it their own, because they know people have no alternative. If you want a cellphone, you don’t have 14 choices; you’ve basically got one or two. And there’s—when you get that big, when you dominate a market as much as an AT&T or Verizon, you’re not really competing like 75 hot dog vendors compete. You have—see much more in common than you do in competition. And so that’s why it’s considered now a cartel.
McChesney made these comments during an interview with Amy Goodman on Democracy Now and you can read the full transcript here. Using crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter, it is possible for small to medium sized businesses to innovate an idea and do business on the internet. But he argues that for the most part, both access and content have largely been privatized by a few big corporations. And part of the original intent behind the concept of net neutrality was the belief that control of content on the internet should be kept separate from control of the pipes and wires, the internet itself.
To a lot of people in the media reform movement that wasn’t supposed to happen, in part because doing so would create a very large opportunity for those that controlled the pipes, the ISP’s (internet service providers) could give their own content preferential access to the so-called “fast lane,” securing faster speeds for themselves or their large corporate customers while the general public might be left with slower speeds or poor service. And if they could, they probably would.
Last week’s FCC 3-2 vote to preserve the Open Internet and the net neutrality framework was a victory but given the political environment in the U.S. today, net neutrality opponents and lawyers for corporate media were already planning their legal challenges. Former FCC Commissioner and National Cable Television Association CEO Michael Powell writes for CNET that while he supports the concept of net neutrality,
Consumers are likely to see higher bills from new taxes and fees and expenses related to regulatory compliance, along with a host of unintended consequences. They will wait longer to receive faster next-generation services. Internet providers, which spend massive capital to dig up streets, hang wires and connect homes, will see this intense chain of activity subjected to regulatory second-guessing that will slow the dynamic improvements we all desire.
This is a common, empty theme repeated by conservatives; government regulation and compliance will increase the cost of services to consumers, a statement that Powell and others make without reference to existing cases, research or any kind of substantive proof of such claims. It seems doubtful that big corporate media companies would have any direct costs related to equal access and keeping the internet open. If there needs to be an examination of competition and pricing, I might suggest instead looking into how many millions of dollars “ComVeriCast” will spend trying to overturn the FCC ruling, buying out any remaining competition, paying industry lobbyists like Powell to work at eliminating the FCC all together, and donations to the super-PACs. In the meantime consumers are likely to spend $150 a month or more for their triple-play bundles or be locked out of the broadband fast lane, to watch or read advertising or political propaganda disguised as news. Juan Gonzales, and Robert McChesney, again from Democracy Now:
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And what is the fate of the content providers in this world where basically the people who control the pipes and the search engines and the aggregators are—have the main economic power? What happens to the journalists, the musicians, the artists and those who produce the actual content that people want to access over these systems?
ROBERT McCHESNEY: Sheer unmitigated disaster. And we all know this. Newsrooms now look like plagues. And the—you know, the Internet is not solely responsible for the collapse of journalism. I think that media consolidation has led to a shrinking of newsrooms, relatively, over the last 25 years. It’s not a new thing. But what the Internet has done is it has greatly accelerated it and made it permanent. Right now we’re faced with a dark situation that there’s really no way to make—commercial interests can make money doing journalism, in any significant level. They might be able to do it for elites, business community, in the largest markets. But the notion of having a broad popular commercial journalism, as we understood for the last hundred years as sort of natural, that’s no longer in existence.
McChesney’s advocacy group, Free Press has already started to gear up the campaign to defend the FCC vote and the expectation that there will be legislation designed to undermine the FCC’s new rules, attempts to defund the agency, endless hearings intended to prop up ISPs looking for new ways to rip off consumers. Visit Free Press now and donate if you can: Defend the Win: Donate Today to Protect Net Neutrality in Congress.