Net neutrality back in DC spotlight

TheInternet is supposed to be the great equalizer, unlocking culture, education, information and opportunities to anyone with a connection. That’s the dream. U.S. President Barack Obama came out in strong support of regulations that would ensure all websites, on all providers, have access to the same Internet speeds, regardless of who owns the website, who uses it and who provides the content. This has long been his position; the language he used on Monday is the first time he’s pointed specifically to existing regulation to justify it.

When Obama pointed to Title II of the Telecommunications Act in support of regulations that would ensure big telecom players like Comcast and Verizon in the United States wouldn’t purposely provide faster service to content providers that could pay for better speeds, he won the admiration of many, namely musicians. After all, the Internet offers better ways—posting a video to YouTube, for example—for musicians to reach a wide, diverse and scattered audience that might not otherwise find them.


Almost immediately, politicians started weighing in. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) compared net neutrality regulations to the president’s controversial (and, admittedly, flawed) healthcare plan. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) claimed Obama’s position represented more government regulation of business.

Sure enough, businesses started implying that they wouldn’t make planned investments in their telecommunications infrastructure, at least not in the United States. AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson on Wednesday suggested he’d postpone expanding installation of new fiber optic cables, telling a group of investors it would be “prudent to pause” and see how things shake out, according to CNET. He is, however, willing to spend big bucks south of the border, now that Mexico’s government has relaxed laws limiting foreign investment in telecommunications.  Stephenson described AT&T’s efforts to acquire Iusacell for a reported $2.5 billion.

But then something interesting happened. A conservative business group, the Internet Freedom Business Alliance, conducted a poll of people who identified themselves as politically conservative, the ones who would, traditionally, vote for the party of Boehner and Cruz. A whopping 83% of self-identified “very conservative” voters said they support efforts to protect Internet use without preferential treatment, according to analysis from Time.

Caught in the middle is Tom Wheeler, chair of the Federal Communications Commission, a five-person panel consisting of three Democrats and two Republicans. Wheeler was appointed by Obama to serve on this commission just last year, but he previously worked as a lobbyist for the cable and telecommunications industry. Within hours of Obama’s statement, Wheeler reportedly told firms, including Yahoo, Google and Etsy, that he hasn’t yet reached a decision on what kind of regulations, if any, his commission will put forward.

“I am an independent agency,” Wheeler said, according to the Washington Post. He also went slightly biblical, allegedly telling the communications companies: “What you want is what everyone wants: an open Internet that doesn’t affect your business. What I’ve got to figure out is how to split the baby.”

The nonpartisan, nonprofit Future of Music Coalition, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization, staunchly supports regulations to eliminate “fast lanes” for those with deep pockets. Net neutrality is “possibly the least partisan issue,” said Casey Rae, the Future of Music Coalition’s vice president for policy and education. The coalition is urging Wheeler to side with Obama and use the Telecommunications Act of 1996, established to regulate commercial radio stations, to regulate Internet providers and Internet access itself like a utility, akin to water.

Rae added:

At its core, net neutrality is about everyone’s ability to participate in a free market powered by creativity, innovation and connectivity. We applaud the president for standing up for what millions of Americans on both sides of the aisle are already demanding: real net neutrality that allows anyone—and not just those with the deepest pockets—to communicate, create and inspire. We only hope that the FCC gets the message and preserves real net neutrality under Title II of the Telecommunications Act.

For musicians, digital storytellers and other artists, that means posting a video or song or painting or play, or some other creative enterprise, on a website without worrying about losing their audience. For instance, someone on a competing service, forced to wait too long for a page to buffer, might get distracted or lose interest. Repeated across the vastness of cyberspace, that could add up to lost revenue and fewer fans.

This post has been corrected to state that the Future of Music Foundation is a nonprofit organization.
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