Hill panel critiques FCC proposal to introduce tiered speeds on Internet

By Andrew Lapin

The end of the so-called net neutrality era poses risks to every organization that relies on the Internet, including pubmedia, according to media advocates who appeared during a July 8 briefing on Capitol Hill.

Hosted by media advocacy organization Free Press, the event provided a forum for critiquing a pending FCC proposal to lift government restrictions on Internet service providers (ISPs). Under current regulations, ISPs are required to provide uniform connection speeds across all online applications, a regulatory framework commonly referred to as net neutrality. The new proposal, advanced by FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, would allow ISPs to open different tiers of connection speeds for content makers and charge additional fees for unobstructed access to consumers.

Such a change has the potential to adversely affect all transactions that occur over the Internet, according to Barbara van Schewick, director of the Center for Internet and Society at Stanford Law School and author of Internet Architecture and Innovation. She was one of four panelists who participated in the briefing, which also featured two guest speakers: Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) and Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian.

“What the FCC is about to mess with is the future of the American economy,” van Schewick said. “Today everything you do, every single center of the economy, depends on the Internet.”

Negotiating with ISPs such as Comcast, Verizon and AT&T for “fast lane” service could require an investment of additional capital that smaller web-based operations can’t afford, the panelists said. “That will kill innovation, and it is absolutely the First Amendment issue of our time,” said Franken, who spoke out against Internet fast lanes during a brief appearance at the event. Low bandwidth costs have been essential to the early-stage successes of startups such as YouTube and Etsy, according to Franken and the panelists.

“I am living proof of what the open and free Internet can provide,” said Ohanian, who grew his social-networking site from a startup to one of the most popular destinations on the Internet.

“We would not have been founded without an open and free Internet,” said Althea Erickson, policy director at Etsy. “We fear the chairman’s proposal mainly because Etsy is a low-margin business. . . Etsy would remain in the slow lane.”

In addition to his proposal opening high-speed lanes on the Internet, Wheeler’s revised regulations would also allow ISPs to inhibit access to online applications if the service providers object to their content, according to van Schewick. She cited cases in Canada and Europe where ISPs blocked consumers from accessing websites that provided forums for criticism of the ISPs’ operations.

The panel discussion mostly centered on the proposed ruling’s effect on e-commerce, but Wheeler’s proposal has important implications for public media, according to van Schewick. Since the rewrite fails to distinguish between for-profit and nonprofit Internet operations, sites that are not trying to raise capital or earn a profit, including those run by universities and nonprofit news outlets, would be subject to the same fees from ISPs, she said.

Yet van Schewick believes that activism on behalf of net neutrality as a whole will be more effective than seeking special provisions for public-service media.

“These fees hurt everybody, not just the nonprofits,” she said. “Why make an exemption for small companies when you could just fix the problem?”

The FCC is currently in an open comment period for the proposed net neutrality rule changes. Outlets including Vox Media, Tumblr and Kickstarter have submitted comments critiquing the proposal. The first round of comments closes after July 15; and responses to other comments filed during the first window are due Sept. 10.

Questions, comments, tips? lapin@current.org

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