Jan 26, 2014

The end is near -- possibly -- for Internet communication as we know it


 

NATIONAL


(CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)

By Mark Pattison
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- When a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled in Verizon's favor Jan. 14 on its suit against the Federal Communications Commission, observers in the tech field suggested this could signal the end of the Internet as we know it.

The court threw out the FCC's Internet anti-blocking and anti-discrimination rules, saying the FCC could not regulate Internet service like it does telephone service because the FCC had chosen in 2002 to classify Internet service providers as providing information services, not telecommunications services.

The concept is known as net neutrality -- short for network neutrality -- the principle that all users of the Internet and content providers of the Internet should be treated equally. This happens with telephone service: You pay your bill, and you're not going to get an advantage or disadvantage for things like how quickly you get a dial tone or how long it takes to make your connection.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has supported net neutrality since 2006.

"Unless Congress requires telephone and cable companies to act as neutral providers of Internet access, as they had been required to do since the birth and through the spectacular growth of the Internet, those companies will use their control over Internet access to speed up or down connections to Web sites to benefit themselves financially," said Bishop Gerald F. Kicanas of Tucson, Ariz., then chairman of the USCCB Committee on Communications, in a letter that year to members of Congress.

"If the Internet becomes -- as it inevitably will without strong protections for net neutrality -- a medium where speakers must pay to deliver their messages, religious speech will be effectively barred from the Internet," Bishop Kicanas added.

Helen Osman, USCCB secretary for communications, seemed to presage the effect of the federal court's 2-1 ruling in a 2011 letter to Congress. "Without the FCC, the public has no effective recourse against those companies' interference with accessibility to content, and there will be uncertainty about how and whether those companies can block, speed up or slow down Internet content," she said.

(CNS photo/Lisa Johnston, St. Louis Review)

As important as the Internet is to "noncommercial religious broadcasters," Osman added, "the Internet is increasingly the preferred method for the disenfranchised and vulnerable -- the poor that the church professes a fundamental preference toward -- to access services, including educational and vocational opportunities to improve their lives and their children's lives. It is immoral for for-profit organizations to banish these individuals and the institutions who serve them to a second-class status on the Internet."

Even before the court ruling, there have been several documented instances of content being treated differently.

In 2010, Catholic Relief Services found that a text-message fundraising appeal for Haitian earthquake victims had been blocked, and efforts to get it unblocked proved unsuccessful. Also that year, a barbershop quartet fan tried to use a file-sharing service to send public-domain copies of sheet music in the genre; but likewise got blocked. The Associated Press, after this episode, conducted its own test, using a file-sharing service to send a public-domain copy of the King James Bible, and it, too, was blocked.

The last two examples are instructive, since public-domain material can be sent legally; that's not the case with copyrighted music downloads, for instance. Since net neutrality covers lawful content only, it thus provides grounds to ban pornography from being similarly shared.

Susan Crawford, a visiting professor in intellectual property at Harvard Law School and who was touted as a candidate to fill an FCC vacancy last year, said in an essay for Bloomberg News that Internet service needs regulation because of its monopolistic character.

When teaching at Harvard, Crawford lives in Cambridge, Mass. "My only choice for high-speed Internet access in Cambridge is Comcast," she said. "And the same is true for more than 77 percent of Americans: The local cable monopoly is the only seller of wired high-speed, high-capacity Internet access."

With monopoly, she argued, comes lack of innovation. When not teaching at Harvard, Crawford lives in New York City. There, she said, "I pay four times as much as someone in Stockholm does for service that is one-eighteenth as fast." In Stockholm, she noted, 100 percent of the businesses and 90 percent of the homes have fiber optics. The "U.S. is sinking in international rankings on fiber-optic penetration, and it now stands in 14th place, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development," Crawford said.

"Without net neutrality, we are in danger of prioritizing Mickey Mouse and Jennifer Lawrence over William Shakespeare and Teddy Roosevelt. This may maximize profits for large content providers, but it minimizes education for all," said Barbara Stripling, president of the American Library Association, in an online article for Wired magazine on the court's decision.

"Many of the innovative services we use today were created by entrepreneurs who had a fair chance to compete for Web traffic. By enabling Internet service providers to limit that access, we are essentially saying that only the privileged can continue to innovate," Stripling added.

(CNS photo/Bob Roller)

Verizon said that, at least for now, it would not change its current pricing policy. The court decision allows Verizon and other ISPs to create a tiered pricing system for Internet access. For its part, the FCC said it was considering an appeal of the ruling. There is something else it should consider, according to Craig Aron, president and CEO of Free Press, a media policy think tank.

"New FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler recently stated that the FCC must be able to protect broadband users and preserve the Internet's fundamental open architecture. Now he has no other choice but to restore and reassert the FCC's clear authority over our nation's communications infrastructure," Aron said in a Jan. 17 column for the Huffington Post website.

"For too long, the FCC has worked to fulfill the wish lists of the big phone and cable monopolies -- instead of looking out for Internet users like us," he added. "Now the free and open Internet is flat-lining. But Wheeler has the paddles in his hands and the power to resuscitate net neutrality. We'll know soon if he has the political guts to use them."