As a handful of cable and DSL providers control access to high-speed internet, the threat to our ability to find anything at the click of a mouse looms large. Activists, consumer groups and commercial interests have begun to take notice, joining forces to stop the gatekeepers from limiting access to online content to sites and services they approve.
While most all of the largest providers have sworn to honor “net neutrality” -- or open access to everything online -- there are early signs that they may be testing the waters for more restricted content services – including those related to on-demand video, a potential revenue earner that would supplant the billion dollar advertiser driven model of broadcast television.
In late 2002 several major software and e-commerce firms formed the Coalition of Broadband Users and Innovators to petition the Federal Communications Commission to adopt rules ensuring that cable and telephone industry broadband operators will not use their control of high-speed networks to disrupt access to websites or other users. They were soon joined by public interest advocates including Public Knowledge, the Center for Digital Democracy, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Consumers Union.
In June 2003, then FCC Media Bureau chief Kenneth Ferree told the Progress & Freedom Foundation -- a free-market organization whose supporters include Disney and AOL/TimeWarner -- that the term "net neurality" was "sloganeering," and that regulating cable Internet services was not necessary to preserve an open internet for all.
"Competitive broadband distribution would allow us to rely upon market forces, rather than government regulation, to govern market structure and service provision," he said.
Throughout this year FCC Chairman Kevin Martin has echoed this belief. Market forces alone will continue to keep the Internet "open," Martin has said on several occasions. This is no surprise coming from a man who’s ruled hand in glove in favor of the same big media companies that are spending tens of millions to lobby rule makers against making rules. But it may not convince many champions of net neutrality to give up on seeking an open access mandate from the FCC.
This group argues that the FCC must adopt preemptive "nondiscrimination safeguards" to ensure Net users open and unfettered access to online content and services in the future. Such preemptive, prophylactic regulation is necessary because the current market is characterized by a cable-telco "broadband duopoly" that threatens Internet users.
In August 2005, the FCC adopted a policy statement containing four principles it claims will preserve the open and interconnected nature of the Net:
1. consumers are entitled to access the lawful Internet content of their choice;While stating that these principals will guide FCC policymaking, it’s clear that the corporate friendly commissioners that dominate the FCC are wary of regulating the handful of media giants that now control access.
2. consumers are entitled to run applications and services of their choice, subject to the needs of law enforcement;
3. consumers are entitled to connect their choice of legal devices that do not harm the network; and
4. consumers are entitled to competition among network providers, application and service providers, and content providers.
The best thing for consumers would be a robust, competitive market with lots of broadband and other Internet providers. In a world dominated by too few access providers, a good case can be made for proactive government intervention to keep the net open.
UPDATE: All Your Broadband Are Belong to Us