Last summer, I argued that U.S. President Barack Obama’s unwillingness to push for “net neutrality” might end up being “the biggest technology-related failure of [his] presidency.” Net neutrality is the idea that Internet service providers (ISPs) should treat all traffic that goes through their networks the same, not offering preferential treatment to some websites over others or charging some companies arbitrary fees to reach users. Obama had supported the concept during his initial presidential campaign, but stood by while his own appointees to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) adopted a different position, one much closer to that of vested interests in the telecommunications industry (who care more about increasing profits than maintaining an open Internet).
Last week, however, the president finally stepped up to the plate, releasing a video and a detailed plan calling on the FCC to adopt the “the strongest possible rules to protect net neutrality.” He said the commission should embrace bright-line rules, without loopholes, and on the strongest legal authority (Title II of the 1996 Telecommunications Act), so that it doesn’t lose in court on this issue for a third consecutive time. It was, in short, the most accurate, well-informed, and important statement ever issued by a public official on the topic of Internet freedom.
Net neutrality sounds wonky and technical, but is actually quite simple. It would keep the Internet as it has always been—cable and phone companies would remain mere gateways to all sites, rather than gatekeepers determining where users can go and what innovators can offer them. Judging from the four million comments the FCC has received from individuals, small businesses, and web titans, this issue pits most of the population against a handful of powerful cable and phone companies and their vendors and allies. And if the FCC were to follow the approach the president outlined in his recent comments, the resulting policy would bolster free trade, reduce communications costs, and help preserve an open and uncensored Internet.
On the less often. Were phone and cable companies allowed to charge for the use of “fast lanes,” the companies that purchased such access would receive a clear competitive advantage over their rivals, one unrelated to the quality of the products or services in question. Both U.S. and foreign telecommunications companies would then be able to discriminate against non-domestic sites in ways that impact free trade. In the United States, Apple’s iTunes radio could purchase a fast-lane deal helping it against, say, Sweden’s Spotify, or Zynga could purchase an advantage against Finland’s Rovio. Political pressure, cultural trade policy, and overlapping business relationships could lead to a protectionist spiral in which local champions get preferential treatment in local markets over foreign competition, and consumers everywhere suffer as a result.
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