Is the Internet a Public Utility ?

By stancutler,

  Filed under: General
  Comments: None

Last week, the Trump FCC overturned net neutrality regulations. Predictably, the Commission decided to allow internet companies to vary their service depending upon variable pricing. Henceforth, market forces alone will govern the internet.

Of the five Commissioners who authorize FCC policy, the two Commissioners who are not of the President’s Party are powerless by design. By law, no more than three of the Commissioners can be of the same political party, but those three are selected by the President subject to Senate approval. The other two are selected by the Senate minority. So this recent ruling is 100% Republican, with both wings of the Party bowing low to money. No surprise there, that’s the Republican creed.

The consequences of the decision will resonate throughout society, altering the media ecosystems in which people learn, conduct business, socialize, seek entertainment, and express themselves. The interconnected institutions of democracy – politics and government – will necessarily change as well.

Last week’s decision is the wrong answer to a fundamental question; should communication media be regulated as public utilities or are they merely a form of marketplace? In a marketplace, ethics adjust to financial motives. A public utility is regulated to ensure that the benefits of the service are shared equitably by the population as a whole – for the public’s welfare. With regard to media companies, I believe that other moral imperatives are more important than money, that the public interest is paramount.

The FCC was established in 1934 to prevent monopoly ownership of communications infrastructure. At the time, the civic risk posed by monopolistic media was unquestioned. Since the law was updated in 1996, big telecomm and media conglomerates have been permitted to join forces, resulting in profit-driven behemoths like Comcast, Disney, and cable news networks.

In 2014, the Obama FCC ruled that financial incentives could not influence the speed or volume of data provided to consumers. This is net neutrality – everyone who uses the internet gets the same service. Thanks to the Republican Party’s FCC, that will no longer be the case.

The effects will be significant. Obviously, the behemoths will have even greater influence as they reap profits from corporate customers. And those rich media sponsors will have influence in proportion to their ability to pay. Just as obviously, the smaller media companies will be disadvantaged. But that’s the marketplace outlook, independent of other social concerns. What will be the effects on public discourse and our democratic institutions? Does the public benefit from a purely profit-driven media environment?

I don’t think so. The decision tilts the marketplace in favor of the big, established companies. Fewer startups will succeed. In the zero sum world preferred by the Republican FCC, it’s right and natural for smaller companies to suffer as the bigger ones prosper. These smaller platforms are important components of social justice and cultural diversity. For example, the actions of the  Ferguson Police Department were exposed through social media, the events ignored by legacy news outlets until the hashtag started trending. Small online video services provide platforms for targeted entertainment, disseminating innovative content rejected by mainstream outlets. Secure messaging platforms, catering to small political groups, companies like Ceerus and WhatsApp, are essential to activist groups who can fearlessly organize without gatekeepers blocking them.

The loosening of anti-monopolistic media regulations has already had disastrous consequences. The 1996 changes, by enhancing the reach and power of media conglomerates, and by abandoning political fairness as regulatory criteria, degraded American politics. Primary election campaigns became reality TV. The 2016 “debate” shows were designed and produced to maximize viewership on commercial channels and to burnish the image of the Republican and Democratic Parties. A self-serving Debate Commission, composed of Party representatives and network executives, established the format and rules, but no public voice was represented. Serious debate was virtually impossible in the structure they devised. Trump, a reality TV star, flourished in that environment. Now he is our President.

The interests of media companies have superseded public interests. It’s past time to re-examine the proper role of government in media matters. Media companies play a fundamental role in a democratic society, a role so important that they should not evolve solely for the selfish benefit of their stock holders. The public has a greater stake.

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