Internet Liberty at Stake in Obama World Wide Web Policy

By Juan Cole

President Barack Obama on Monday called on the Federal Communications Commission to treat Internet Service Providers (ISP’s) as common carriers, sort of like television networks such as NBC or CBS. The relevant law is called “Title II.”

As the world wide web was originally conceived by framers such as Tim Berners-Lee, it was characterized by a key, amazing feature. Everybody on the internet was the same distance from everyone else. Thus, whether you are reading this blog in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where my computer connects to the Web, or in Cairo or Jakarta, you have the same access to it. It loads just as fast for you, wherever you are. My blog is just as easy for you to browse as the internet portal of Fox Cable News, owned by billionaire press lord Rupert Murdoch.

This situation has two disadvantages for the wealthy who mostly run the United States. The first is that Internet Service Providers can’t make easy money by charging some publishers more than others, and setting up tiers of service. Thus, they could make it so it would take 60 seconds for my blog to load, since I can’t pay them very much. But then Rupert’s so-called “news” site could load immediately because he could give them millions and not even notice it. Studies have shown that readers won’t wait 60 seconds for a site to load, so this “tiered” service would destroy citizen journalism and leave us with only corporate news on the world wide web.

The second disadvantage for the wealthy of net neutrality is that they cannot use gate keepers like newspaper editors to control the free circulation of views and information on the World Wide Web. Everyone with a keyboard and an internet connection can publish, and publish for a mass audience. In the early 20th century there was a quip that anyone could own a newspaper, all you needed was a million dollars. Factory workers could publish cyclostyled (don’t ask) newsletters. But large-circulation newspapers were the province of the wealthy, and then information could be presented to the public from the point of view of the wealthy. (The wealthy don’t all agree with one another, so of course you still had liberal and conservative newspapers, but in the US you had few large-circulation socialist ones. The lines of acceptable viewpoints were drawn so as to position the public to the right of center, even though it wasn’t and isn’t if left to its own devices).

A tiered world wide web would restore some of the lost ability of the wealthy to control the spin put on news. We know what that spin typically is. There are no labor reporters at any major metropolitan newspaper. Major labor actions are often not reported on at any length. Nor are union workers much featured in the mass media such as television. Wars benefiting munitions corporations are reported on positively. The dangers of fossil fuel consumption are discounted. In a business-class world, it is people with capital who matter and on whom reporters are told to concentrate. We’ve all heard of Donald Trump or the Koch brothers. Richard L. Trumka and Linda Chavez-Thompson of the AFL CIO are, let us say, less prominent. Even less prominent are climate scientists like Michael Mann. And, of course, northern Europeans are generally more newsworthy than people originating in other parts of the world. Race and class are not evenly distributed in the informational world of US corporate media.

A lot of you have said how much you benefited from my own analyses of the Iraq War during the Bush administration. But in the 20th century I might not have been able to present that analysis to the public. I had trouble getting my op-eds published in newspapers in the old days. I wasn’t mainstream. This blog would not have existed without net neutrality, and if net neutrality ever goes away, probably so will the blog.

President Obama’s support of net neutrality is welcome, but there are many problems with it. He can’t order the FCC around, since it is an independent agency. Its head comes to us from the world of ISPs and we are suspicious of him. Title II would not necessarily in and of itself prevent a tiered web, though it might impede and constrain the degree of it. And, whatever Obama accomplishes by mere administrative regulation can be undone by the next president. Presumably he is hoping to create such a weight of bureaucratic practice and tradition that it will be difficult to overturn.

In the American system, the best guarantor of liberty of access to the internet and liberty of accessible publication on it is the rise of powerful economic interests that benefit from it. Thus, the guy in a white hat here is Netflix. In contrast, Comcast and other ISPs shot themselves in the foot by throttling Netflix and shaking it down, creating an ally for bloggers and civil libertarians. Senator Al Franken, with his ties to the entertainment industry (I remember when he was a comedian on Saturday Night Live), likewise has taken a powerful stand in favor of net neutrality.

Here’s a toast to Netflix, in hopes that it can bring sufficient pressure to bear to see Obama’s vision realized. The good lord knows that the bloggers are unlikely to be able to.

Related video:

Last Week Tonight with John Oliver: Net Neutrality (HBO) from 5 months ago

12 Responses

  1. And here’s a toast to Dr. Cole, for bearing up under government abuse and pressure and continuing to speak truth ABOUT power, since speaking TO power is largely futile (and ooooh, against “the national interest.”)

    Bless you, sir, and may you continue the good you do to counter the idiocies of the Narrative and what lies behind it…

    • I do agree that juan deserves credit for speaking his mind regardless of pressure from various sides of sides the political spectrum.

      I disagree on the implication that one shouldnt bother in trying communicate to the powerful, one should attempt, in any way, to make their voices heard and opinions known.

      This is the only way to bring about change.

      As a small side note though, you seem unaware of what an ad hominem is.

  2. When you mention how it could take as long as 60 seconds for a download, I immediately thought of my friends and family who are addicted to Face Book. Seriously, such a long time for a download would ruin their evening Face Book time dramatically. Besides all that it would be nice if there were at least one place left where everyone was treated equally.

  3. Studies have shown that readers won’t wait 60 seconds for a site to load, …

    We already have something similar with website pages being jerked around while advertisements load and some sites are doing whatever they do in the background. For these reasons I just dropped The Guardian (UK) and The Hill from my daily reading lists.

    Normally, we could expect the mass of American people to go along with this proto-fascistic rigging of the Internet, but with so many using the Internet perhaps they might show some integrity this time – for a change.

  4. Unfortunately, Obama’s words have become progressively meaningless with each passing speech so there is no reason to expect the telecom agents on the FCC to pay much attention to this latest and belated pronouncement.

  5. will President O assure corporate control of the internet. We can be sure he doesn’t mean what he said neutrality.

    • If you look at how Democrats raised small donations on the Net before this election, it’s not surprising that they suddenly realized how important it is to protect neutrality. Logically, the GOP must now throw everything it has into destroying it.

      • Which means other sites that allow the non-rich to do or promote business, like YouTube, Kickstarter, and Patreon, are also on someone’s hit list.

  6. Dr. Cole – thank you for pointing out the role of gatekeepers and the use of the “Lie of Omission” by the corporate-controlled media. It is the most powerful and odious tool employed.

  7. One must always pay more attention to what President Obama does than what he says. Yes, it is good that he has made a statement supporting net neutrality. But what he has done is appoint an industry lobbyist to head the FCC.

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