Net Neutrality is just the beginning
Interview with Victor Pickard
Victor Pickard, associate professor of communication at the University Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School, whose research focuses on internet policy and the political economy of media.
with each new victory for the American telecommunications oligopoly, that digital optimism fades further from view.
Net neutrality protections are essentially safeguards that prevent internet service providers (ISPs) from interfering with the internet. Net neutrality gives the FCC the regulatory authority to prevent ISPs like Comcast and Verizon from slowing down or blocking certain types of content. It also prevents them from offering what’s known as paid prioritization, where an ISP could let particular websites or content creators pay more for faster streaming and download times. With paid prioritization an ISP could shake down a company like Netflix or an individual website owner, coercing them to pay more in order to be in the fast lane.
Net neutrality often gets treated as a sort of technocratic squabble over ownership and control of internet pipes. But in fact it speaks to a core social contract between government, corporations, and the public. What it really comes down to is, how can members of the public obtain information and services, and express ourselves creatively and politically, without interference from massive corporations?
Should we think of the internet as a good, a service, an infrastructure, or something else?
It’s all of the above.
The internet has been radically privatized. It wasn’t inevitable, but through policy decisions over the years, the internet has become increasingly commodified. Meanwhile it’s really difficult to imagine living in modern society without fast internet services — it’s no longer a luxury but a necessity for everything ranging from education to health to livelihood. The “digital divide” is a phrase that sounds like it’s from the 1990s, but it’s still very relevant. Somewhere around one fifth of American households don’t have access to wireline broadband services. It’s a social problem. We should be thinking about the internet as a public service and subsidizing it to make sure that everyone has access.
In your recent book on media democracy, you discuss the rise of what you call “corporate libertarianism.” What is corporate libertarianism and how does it relate to net neutrality?
Corporate libertarianism is an ideological project that has origins at a core moment in the 1940s. It sees corporations as having individual freedoms, like those in the First Amendment, which they can use to shield themselves from public interest oversight and regulation. It’s also often connected to this assumption that the government should never intervene in markets, and media markets in particular. (My note: Milton Friedman)
Of course, this is a libertarian mythology — the government is always involved. The question ought to be how it should be involved. Under corporate libertarianism it’s assumed that the government should only be involved in ways that enhance profit maximization for communication oligopolies.
There are clear dangers associated with vertical integration, where the company that owns the pipes is able to control the dissemination of information, and able to set the terms by which we access that information.
There have been cases like this already. In 2005, the company Telus, which is the second largest telecommunications company in Canada, began blocking access to a server that hosted a website that supported a labor strike against Telus.
Net neutrality is just one part of the story. What other regulations, policies and interventions could resist corporate control of the internet?
Roughly half of Americans live in communities that have access to only one ISP. My note: Ha Ha Ha, “pick me, pick me,” as Dori from “Finding Nemo” will say… Charter, whatever they will rename themselves again, is the crass example in Central MN.
Strategies to contain and confront monopolies:
- break them up, and to prevent monopolies and oligopolies from happening in the first place by blocking mergers and acquisitions.
- if we’re not going to outright nationalize them then we want to heavily regulate them, and enforce some kind of social contract where they’re compelled to provide a public service in exchange for the right to operate.
- create public alternatives, like municipal wireless networks that can circumvent and compete with corporate monopolies. There’s a growing number of these publicly owned and governed internet infrastructures, and building more is crucial.
more on #netNeutrality in this IMS blog