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Thursday, April 24, 2014

FCC Unveils ‘Net Neutrality’ Rules

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler is presenting proposed rules to commissioners today that would allow content providers like Apple and Netflix to pay for faster delivery over the so-called “last mile” of connection to people’s homes, but would increase oversight of those deals so they don’t hurt competitors or limit free speech.

The FCC had to come up with new rules because a federal appeals court struck down old open-access rules last January.

Siva Vaidhyanathan, professor of media studies at the University of Virginia, joins Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson to talk about the proposed rules.




From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Jeremy Hobson.


I'm Robin Young. It's HERE AND NOW. Coming up, NPR's Nina Totenberg on the brouhaha over whether Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg should retire.

HOBSON: But first the future of the Internet in the U.S. is up for debate in a committee room in Washington today. The Federal Communications Commission is reviewing a proposal that would allow big companies like Comcast and Google to pay more for faster Internet service to their customers. It involves the complex concept called net neutrality, and critics say the FCC's proposal could mean the end of the Internet as we know it.

Siva Vaidhyanathan is professor of media studies at the University of Virginia. He's with us from Charlottesville. Siva, welcome to HERE AND NOW.

SIVA VAIDHYANATHAN, UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA: Thank you very much. It's good to be here.

HOBSON: Well, do you think this would end the Internet as we know it?

VIRGINIA: Well, it's been a slow, steady decline for a number of years now. Basically we're going to look back on this event as a major point in the end of our sort of 20-year wild ride with an open, creative, competitive Internet. And the United States, by giving up on network neutrality, which is what we're really talking about here, is going in the opposite direction of other major countries that have decided that an open and free Internet is a really good thing.

Just yesterday the government of Brazil approved a bill that would establish and preserve network neutrality in Brazil, and the European Union did the same thing a couple of weeks ago. So what's happening here is we're basically capitulating to the wishes of Comcast and other major Internet service providers and the short-term immediate needs of the big players in the Web video world like Amazon and Netflix and Google, et cetera.

YOUNG: But how are we capitulating if they're going to have to pay more, or they would have to pay more under these proposals to get faster speeds?

VIRGINIA: Well currently and traditionally, Internet information data packets would flow at an equal rate regardless of who sent them. So if I started a Web video platform, Siva's Web Video Service, and I wanted to post Web videos on a server that I controlled, I would have an equal shot at having my video appear clearly on your computer. I would have no advantage or disadvantage over a YouTube video or a video sent through Amazon Prime.

Under this new system, they're going to create a fast lane through which the wealthier, better established companies, can pay a premium, one might call it an extortion fee, so that those services arrive cleaner, fuller, in higher definition and more dependably than the coach class or the slow lane that the rest of us are going to have to wallow in.

And that means that it's going to severely limit competition from future companies, future innovators, the next Skype, the next YouTube, the next Facebook because they're not going to be able to compete in high quality unless they pay an extortion fee.

You're saying it harms innovation. Of course the FCC denies that. The commissioner, Tom Wheeler, says there are reports that the FCC is gutting the open Internet rule. They are flat out wrong. There is no turnaround in policy. The same rules will apply to all Internet content.

He's being disingenuous at best. This does change the game. This does double down on the advantages that the wealthy, established and politically powerful companies like Amazon, Google, Facebook, Microsoft, have along with what is becoming a behemoth in our society, one of the most politically powerful and influential companies in the history of this nation, Comcast.

Comcast is now playing a role not unlike Standard Oil in the 1890s or AT&T in the 1970s or Microsoft in the 1990s. And we have to ask ourselves is that the sort of model we want in this new century. And I think this result, this rule proposal by the FCC is a direct reflection of the naked political power that Comcast has.

HOBSON: But if you don't offer the idea of a fast lane that companies can pay more for, who pays for the ability of all of us to have an equal chance of getting fast-speed video, for example, coming through on the Internet? There's not an unlimited amount of bandwidth out there.

VIRGINIA: Sure, but what's happened is the major Internet service provider companies, the major cable companies in this country, soon to become one as Comcast tries to buy Time Warner Cable, those companies have been holding back on upgrades for a number of years. The United States has some of the slowest broadband in the developed world, and that's intentional. That's because they have been able to say your broadband is slow and clogged up by Netflix because of network neutrality.

The fact is we could have both. We could have fast broadband and network neutrality, and we're seeing that, experimentally for instance, with Google Fiber in Kansas City and soon in Austin, Texas. We're seeing the capability of building out high-speed, high-quality, neutral networks. We could have network service that strong, that broadly in other major cities and in fact across the nation.

But we lack the political will largely because there's this very powerful company that gets to call the shots.

HOBSON: Siva Vaidhyanathan, what do you think this means for consumers and what they will pay for Internet service?

VIRGINIA: We'll pay a little bit more for the subscriptions to Amazon Prime and Netflix because those companies are going to have to pay this extortion toll to keep flowing in the fast lane, and they're going to have to pass that cost on to us. I think that's fairly trivial. In fact what we get for it is probably going to be higher quality "Orange is the New Black." The orange will be brighter; the black will be deeper.


VIRGINIA: You know, but - and so, you know, if that's a tradeoff for this amount of political power and ability to shape public policy, well, that's what we choose. But what we're losing is not something we can ever count: an environment, a set of assumptions about a level playing field for innovation and expression.

I'm probably going to sit down this weekend and draft a book proposal for the history of the rise and fall of the Internet as we know it because, you know, what we're really seeing is a big shift in how data flows and who gets to control it, monitor it and monetize it.

HOBSON: SIVA VAIDHYANATHAN, UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA, talking about these new proposals from the FCC regarding net neutrality. Siva Vaidhyanathan, thanks so much for joining us.

VIRGINIA: It's my pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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