The End of our Populist Internet?

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By Matt Propper

The future of the internet, the most important public forum the world has ever seen, is at stake. And not just for technology moguls or cyber geeks, but for the average Reddit-browsing, Netflix-streaming user.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is currently reviewing two antithetical proposals that will decide the fate of the internet. The first will allow internet service providers (ISPs) such as Comcast and Time Warner Cable to create ‘fast lanes,’ essentially authorizing ISPs to charge content providers like Netflix or Amazon an extra fee for quicker service. The second proposed plan would change the status of internet service to a public utility, which would give the FCC the power to impose net neutrality, a term meaning that all websites should be treated equally.

Proponents of fast lanes argue that an open-market internet will spark innovation that government regulation obstructs. They cite the speed at which the internet has progressed in the last decade as a testament to the power of an internet free from the gridlock that inevitably results from a tangled government bureaucracy. Joshua Steimle, an entrepreneur and writer, asserts in his op-ed, “Am I The Only Techie Against Net Neutrality?” that this gridlock is inherently etched into the government because the Founders “knew the greatest danger to individual freedom came from a government that could move quickly.” Supporters of net neutrality believe that regulating the internet will ensure that everybody has an equal footing, even new startups, when providing services, streaming, or posting on the internet. Chad Dickerson, the CEO of a relatively small e-commerce website, contends in his op-ed, “Etsy CEO to Businesses: If Net Neutrality Perishes, We Will Too,” that “companies would succeed because of deals struck with cable companies, not because of superior products.”

In my opinion, the FCC should not allow fast lanes because all open markets, especially one that plays such an important role in regards to the United States democracy, have to be regulated by the government to ensure fair business practices and superior consumer well-being; in the case of the internet, innovation should not supersede the ideal of a public internet where all websites have an equal voice.

Though Steimle makes an insightful point about the government moving slow at times to make policy changes, and the market being quick to innovate technology, he ignores the damage that an open, unregulated market can do to the economy, and to consumers. If companies do not have limits or regulations imposed on them, they will take advantage of consumers. All companies are profit-driven, meaning that they are fundamentally supposed to do whatever they can to make as much money as possible, regardless of the consequences. It is the government’s responsibility to ensure that the companies are treating their employees and consumers fairly. ISPs acting without restriction pose a serious threat to the future of internet freedom as they will be able to alter the speed that users access websites. This means that private, profit-driven ISPs will choose which sites deserve to load quicker. They will undoubtedly choose websites that pay them more, making it remarkably hard for start-ups and small business to compete against massive content service providers like Netflix. I am not doubting that government overreach can hurt businesses at times; however, just as gridlock is a foundation of the U.S. government, deceit, exploitation, and greed are cornerstones of corporations. I would prefer slightly slower technological innovations to ensure fair business practices and superior consumer well-being.

Not only do proponents of fast lanes assert that innovation will lag with regulation, but they also maintain that government interference will fail to break up the existing monopolies that ISPs hold. Instead, they argue that the market will spark competition and subsequently shatter the monopolies. Steimle claims that in order to “break up the large telecoms through increased competition we need to eliminate regulations that act as barriers to entry in the space, rather than create more of them” (“Am I The Only Techie Against Net Neutrality?”). However, fast lanes would not increase competition between ISPs; instead, they would help ISPs to further consolidate power, wealth, and market-share because content providers would be paying them off and deals would be struck. It would be immensely difficult for a new ISP to emerge in the market if the existing companies have deals with all of the content providers.

Not only will ISPs obtain too much power with fast lanes, but large content providers will also dominate their respective markets. Massive ISPs will begin to partner with massive content providers to exert as much influence as they can over the internet. With ISPs and content providers working hand-in-hand to ensure that new startups do not gain any traction in the market, the internet will lose one of its most important values: website equality. Proponents of fast lanes might claim that if new startups are more technologically advanced than large content providers, they will be able to gain a following from consumers, and therefore not allow monopolies to form. That argument is flawed, however, because ISPs will have the power to slow down the speed at which the new up-and-coming websites operate.

In a recent New York Times op-ed titled “Amazon’s Monopsony Is Not O.K,” Paul Krugman describes a fascinating and relevant example of a content provider, Amazon, wielding its tremendous influence to destroy a book publisher. He insists in the op-ed that Amazon has a monopsony over the online book market. A monopsonist, Krugman explains, acts as a “dominant buyer with the power to push prices down” (“Amazon’s Monopsony Is Not O.K”). In this case, Amazon uses “its market power to put a squeeze on publishers, in effect driving down the prices it pays for books” (Krugman). Because Amazon has the power to control the popularity of the books it sells, it can coerce book publishers, specifically Hachette, into giving Amazon a larger piece of its profits. Krugman proves that Amazon controls the fate of its products by citing the delivery times for two political Hachette books. A profile of the Koch Brothers has a delivery time of 2 to 3 weeks, while a book by Paul Ryan ships between 2 to 3 days.

The Amazon case and the concept of net neutrality are strikingly similar and hopelessly intertwined. Not only is Krugman right about the monopsony that Amazon controls, but he is also prescient about the fate of the internet if fast lanes are allowed. Amazon’s market control would be duplicated by ISPs who have the power to control which websites people visit. Open-market proponents might argue that Amazon is a unique case due to its seemingly endless supply of products. However, Amazon is not unique in regards to its relationship with Hachette. Just as Amazon wants to charge Hachette extra, ISPs would be able to charge content providers for quicker service if fast lanes are approved. Amazon has the power to not only manipulate the delivery time for Hachette books, but also ensure that they do not get any coverage on their website.

Not only will ISPs be able to slow down sites such as Ebay and Netflix, they will also control the speed of media and news sites such as The New York Times. Certain news sites being favored over others leads to media bias and political manipulation. The internet is such a powerful tool for the dissemination of information, but if some information or news flows quicker to users than other information, the entire system fails. The media is already exceptionally privatized, but all news sites are on a level playing field in terms of reaching consumers. If the playing field shifts, certain information from select corporations will reach readers faster than other information, leading to a less-informed population. In his op-ed “Net Neutrality: Why Fight for the Future is Hosting Internet Slowdown,” Evan Greer concurs that fast lanes could lead to corporate manipulation. He declares that “net neutrality is about free speech, and preventing powerful interests from discriminating against, censoring, slowing down and blocking content on the internet” (Greer). Our democracy relies on diversified and competitive news to guarantee free press; fast lanes threaten this tremendously important aspect of our Constitution.

The future of our internet can either be a robber-baron, monopolistic, rich-get-richer scenario or it can be a regulated, progressive forum for sharing, streaming, and political activism. ISPs and internet giants can strangle money out of little guys’ pockets or the internet can continue to function as a haven for equal opportunity in an increasingly unequal society. There is still time to tell your elected representative what you believe the internet should look like in the next decade, or even century. Unlike in the ‘real’ world, the rich do not get preferential treatment on the internet. Let’s help ensure that it stays that way so information can continue to flow freely without anybody having to worry about paying off corporate gatekeepers for access.

Works Cited

Dickerson, Chad. “Etsy CEO to Businesses: If Net Neutrality Perishes, We Will Too.” Wired.com. Conde Nast Digital, 02 Sept. 0014. Web. 27 Oct. 2014.

Greer, Evan. “Net Neutrality: Why Fight for the Future Is Hosting Internet Slowdown.” The Guardian. The Guardian, 10 Sept. 2014. Web. 26 Oct. 2014.

Krugman, Paul. “Amazon’s Monopsony Is Not O.K.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 19 Oct. 2014. Web. 27 Oct. 2014.

Steimle, Joshua. “Am I The Only Techie Against Net Neutrality?” Forbes. Forbes Magazine, 14 May 2014. Web. 27 Oct. 2014.

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