When it comes to Internet Service Providers and high-speed Internet, the consumer marketplace has hardly been a model of competitiveness. Some of us are lucky enough to be able to choose from two providers, and some of us only have access to one.
These digital conduits are essential parts of America's utility infrastructure, nearly as basic as electricity and water pipes. They connect us (and our children) to worldwide knowledge, news, diverse viewpoints and other fundamental tools of citizenship. And, of course, we can buy and sell through them, be entertained, run our businesses, connect with friends, get up-to-the-minute scores, follow the weather and—yes indeedy—pay our bills.
Yet while this digital highway is deemed vital to our nation's well-being, access to it is not offered as a public service, i.e., an investment in the common good. Instead, it is treated as just another profit center for a few corporations.
Amassing market power to gouge customers is bad enough, but ISPs plan on eviscerating the pure egalitarian ethic of the Internet, which is why they were so upset when President Obama recently urged the FCC to back a free and open Internet.
Like an uncensored global bulletin board, the great virtue of the Internet is that no one controls its content. This digital communication technology has been so spectacularly successful and so socially valuable because it is a wide-open, democratic forum, accessible on equal terms to all who want to put information, images, opinions, etc. on it or to download any of the same from it. Since its invention, the guiding principle behind the use of this liberating technology has been that no corporation, government, religion, or other controlling power should be its gatekeeper.
This open-access tenet is dubbed "net neutrality," meaning the system doesn't care if you're royalty or a commoner, an establishmentarian or a rebel, a brand-name corporation or an unknown start-up, a billionaire or a poverty-wage laborer -- you are entitled to equal treatment in sending or getting information in the worldwide webosphere. That's an important democratic virtue. As we've learned in other spheres, however, corporate executives are not ones to let virtue stand in the way of profit, and today's telecom tycoons are no different. For some time, they've been scheming to dump the idea of net neutrality, viewing its public benefit as an unwarranted obstacle to their desire to grab greater profits.
- Rather than having one big broadband "freeway" open for transporting everyone's Internet content, the ISP giants intend to create a special system of lanes for high-speed traffic.
- This express lane will be made available to those who want to rush their information/view points/programs/etc. to the public and to get greater visibility for their content by having it separated from the mass clutter of the freeway.
- The ISPs will charge a premium price to those who want their content transported via this special Internet toll-lane system.
By creating this first-class fare, the likes of Comcast/TWC elevate themselves from mere transporters of content to exalted robber barons. They would be empowered to decide (on the basis of cash), which individuals, companies, and so forth will be allowed in the premium lane of what is supposed to be a democratic freeway. The "winners" will be (1) the ISP giants that would reap billions from this artificial profit lane, and (2) the powerful content providers (e.g., Disney, the Koch brothers, Walmart, the Pentagon, and Monsanto) that can easily pay top dollar to ride in the privileged lane (and deduct the ticket price from their corporate taxes).
The losers, obviously, will be the vast majority of internet users: (1) the dynamic cosmos of groups, small companies, and other content providers without the deep pockets needed to buy their way out of the slow lanes (which ISP monopolists could intentionally make even slower), and (2) the broad public that will have its access to the full range of Internet offerings blocked by the neon glare of those flashing their purchased messages in the fast lanes, limiting what we're allowed to read, watch, listen to and interact with on our computers, smartphones and TV screens.
The biggest loser though, would be the Internet itself, which would be made to surrender its determinedly democratic ethic to the plutocratic rule of corporate profiteers.