The debate over net neutrality — equal access to the internet — is back on the front burner. President Barack Obama has sparked renewed hope that the web will remain accessible to all.
Speaking in early August at the U.S. Africa Business Forum in Washington, the president sounded a warning about "big, wealthy media companies" providing differentiated Internet service depending on the ability to pay, suggesting that could stifle innovation. "In the United States one of the issues around net neutrality is whether you are creating different rates or charges for different content providers. That's the big controversy here. So you have big, wealthy media companies who might be willing to pay more but then also charge more for more spectrum, more bandwidth on the internet so they can stream movies faster or whatever. I personally, the position my administration as well as I think a lot of companies have is you don't want to start getting a differentiation in how accessible the internet is to various users. you want to leave it open so the next Google or the next Facebook can succeed."
On Wednesday, former FCC commissioner Michael Copps requested a meeting with the president "to discuss how to solidify open Internet protections." John Bergmayer with media watchdog group Public Knowledge warns that limiting the market reduces competition that normally keeps prices low and quality of service high. It's akin to what's been playing out with Comcast's bid to acquire Time Warner Cable: these are the two biggest cable TV providers, recognized for more than a year as being "the two worst" according to the Michigan-based American Customer Satisfaction Index. "As the Department of Justice and the FCC found when they blocked the AT&T-T-Mobile merger you need a certain number of competitors to ensure that a market actually is competitive. Comcast plus Time Warner will be so big that they can essentially make or break any independent programming. So you're creating a single gatekeeper that really determines what's going to be the successful video content nationwide."
Without net neutrality, some observers believe it wouldn't take long for just one, two or three content providers to dominate the internet, which could result in a similar battle for control, at the consumer's expense. There is much at stake: Chaunda Ball, associate state director for communications with AARP New York, say 96 percent of New York adults use the Internet. "67 percent of New York adults engage on social media sites and 45 percent download music files. We found 63 percent of New York adults watch videos on video-sharing sites."
But creating so-called “fast lanes” of the internet could stop those activities dead in their tracks. The FCC has reportedly fielded more than a million comments regarding net neutrality and will hold six roundtable discussions in September and October in Washington to give the public a chance to sound off before agency staff.
Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy of Vermont, a Democrat, is calling on the FCC to host some of its hearings outside of D.C. "I don't want to see an internet where those who can afford to pay can muffle the voices of those who cannot. An online world split into fast lanes and slow lanes or 'pay to play' deal and dictate who can reach consumers - that runs contrary to every single principle that I've thought the internet was based on."
The White House has not yet commented on the Michael Copps letter.
In New York, net neutrality has gotten headlines in recent weeks; Tim Wu, who is running for lieutenant governor with long shot Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Zephyr Teachout, is the scholar who coined the term.