Net Neutrality Talks Fail - Evidence of "Free Market" Dominance

On 7 September I'm off to a one day workshop on Net Neutrality in the UK. Well I say off but as it is being organised by the Department of Media and Communications at the LSE I'm not exactly going far. Net Neutrality is of course one of the current hot topics of Internet Governance apart from Chris Marsden's excellent book on the subject the debate has been raging across the blogosphere, in the media and in regulatory circles in recent months. 

The focus of much contemporary debate is of course surrounding the FCCs Net Neutrality programme in the United States. As I wrote on 1 October 2009 FCC Chair Julius Genachowski clearlx placed the Federal Government, through the guise of the FCC, on the side of mandated Net Neutrality in the US. Obviously such a position was never going to find favour with the right-wing, free-market position so favoured of the US free-marketeers. Thus almost exactly as Lawrence Lessig predicted in The Future of Ideas in 2001 (you can download the e-book version here under a CC Licence) a merging of carrier and content layer - the content providers and telcos - is starting to emerge and everyone is saying that the free market is the best way to regulate this.

The battle began in spring 2010 when a $1.4 million advertising campaign was launched by Americans for Prosperity (a Reaganite think tank and lobbying group); the National Taxpayers Union; the Free State Foundation and the Small Business and Entrepreneurship Council. This campaign claimed that "Washington wants to spend billions to take over the internet" and urged the public to help stop the "Washington takeover" - see BBC News. Of course as you may expect from this ragbag group of right wing radical thinkers the adverts were not neutral and were downright misleading claiming among other things that "The FCC wants to reduce the internet to an old-fashioned government-regulated utility."

Now I'm no strong supporter of mandated Net Neutrality and generally my approach has been to allow the market to develop before we start mandating controls. My main concern is that some previous US attempts to regulate such as the ill fated Dorgan-Snowe Bill would have made it all but impossible for telcos to deliver high quality high latency materials such as streaming video content such as IPTV or high quality voice content such as VOIP but equally I'm not someone who sees universal access at reasonable speed as some form of Internet Communism. 

As generally a supporter of allowing the market to develop I find what I'm about to say a change in view. The movement epitomised by Americans for Prosperity - a movement who celebrated when Comcast won their famous victory in April 2010 against the FCC when the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled that the FCC  lacked authority to censure Comcast  for interfering with subscribers’ Internet traffic.

Now it looks like the free marketeers are getting their way and Lawrence Lessig's 2001 dystopian vision of a two tier internet is perilously close to realisation. Closed door meetings between the FCC, Telcos and Content Providers in Washington, begun in the aftermath of the Comcast decision, are reported to have broken up with no agreement. Around the same time Verizon and Google have been dealing with reports that they are near to announcing a deal which would see content carried at a higher speed for a fee (exactly as Lessig predicted). If implemented such a plan would lead to a two tier internet with access to the higher tier being decided by ability to pay. Both firms deny this is the case. Google stated that they remain committed to Net Neutrality; while Verizon stated that the New York Times article behind all the rumours was wrong. 

Maybe it is all just hot air then.

But the very idea that major corporations such as these have the ability to strangle our internet access suggests a failure of regulation. This is where I change my position. The market only works if it is a regulated market - we've seen what happens when you allow markets to pursue profits at all costs - morals, judgement and society are lost in pursuit of the all powerful profit position. We need to move now to regulate the internet access and content supply markets. A failure to act now is something we may regret in years to come. Whereas 2001 (or even 2009) was too early to regulate this developing market it is now mature enough to withstand regulation and the time is now. Maybe internet access should be enshrined as a human right as is already the case in France and Finland and which around 80% of those polled suggested in March 2010 - see BBC. Maybe this right should be to a certain level of access and provision not just a generic access right. 

Today we live in the information society. Access to information is as important to us as access to education, employment and social support mechanisms. If we do not act now the future may look like this.