Few Americans would argue that posting speed limits on federal highways and having officers enforcing those laws is an undue burden on interstate commerce. To most, keeping highways safe and accessible to everyone — consumers and businesses alike — just makes sense. So why are federal regulators hell-bent on changing all the rules for the digital highway?
By direction of Donald Trump-appointed Chairman Ajit Pai, the Federal Communications Commission is forging ahead with plans to reverse its existing policy on “net neutrality,” which requires that broadband providers treat all internet traffic equally. Instead, internet carriers such as Comcast, Verizon and AT&T would be given more power to control consumer access to all internet content.
To use the highway analogy, this would be equivalent to giving corporations the freedom to block access to freeways or give preference to certain drivers (think websites) and charge higher prices for those who want faster and smoother lanes. Those who can’t pay higher prices would be stuck in the slow lanes or, possibly, kept off the highway entirely.
Comcast and Verizon argue that they can be trusted not to do stuch dirty tricks. But anyone who has done battle with a cable company over a billing or service issue can be forgiven if trust is not their first response to their claims.
Furthermore, critics point out that rescinding net neutrality would discourage innovation and give those existing corporate giants an unfair advantage over startup competitors who, no doubt, would be among those stuck in those slow lanes. This is why everyone should be concerned and should oppose this plan to change the internet as we know it.
No one is going to argue that the internet is flawless. As with our highway system, it’s a constant work in progress. But giving up on the guiding principle that internet should be open and accessible to everyone is no gateway to progress. It’s a toll road to chaos.
The best example of what an unregulated internet might look like is the cable TV industry, which has become a jumble of packages and services. Often getting the programs that are most desirable requires buying premium packages that many families cannot afford. It’s not hard to imagine what would happen if the same system is applied on the internet, where accessing certain websites required higher payments. Many students, small businesses, artists, writers, entrepreneurs and, in some cases entire communities, would be left in the congested lanes.
For years, we have been calling attention to the digital divide that has left rural areas of Northern California out of the loop for high-speed internet service. While that gap still exists, the rescinding of “net neutrality” threatens to open a new and greater divide — between the haves and have nots in America. This nation is divided enough. Before the FCC votes on Dec. 14, the country should speak with a unified voice — that it wants the internet to remain open and neutral.