Free Speech Issue for Our Times

Yesterday, I wrote about how New York is moving forward with a plan to provide free wireless internet throughout the City, and how I think that is a great way to promote job creation.  Today – an internet issue that threatens to slow job creation if it is not solved.  Senator Al Franken, in a recent speech, made the argument in favor of pure net neutrality, calling it “the free speech issue of our time.”

What is this issue of net neutrality?  Simply stated, it is that all traffic on the internet should be treated equally; that internet gatekeepers should not reward some traffic and punish other traffic.  

A few years ago, major internet service providers like Comcast and Verizon began making an interesting claim – that huge internet companies like Google and Netflix were making undeserved profits because they were not paying the service providers for the use of the internet when they used it to make money.  

This claim, of course, conveniently ignored the fact that each of the service providers’ customers were paying for that service so that they could connect to Google and Netflix, so I fail to see how the service providers were hurt – they simply seem to me to be money-grubbing companies with their hands out.  But I digress.

The service providers are now offering to provide special treatment for traffic from companies that agree to pay them.  In other words, if a company does NOT pay them, traffic from that company will move through the internet more slowly and the customers of that company will be unhappy.  In February, Netflix agreed to pay Comcast to deliver its movies faster.  In April, Netflix agreed to a similar deal with Verizon.  While paying these two companies, Netflix has not been shy about calling the deals “double dipping” by the service providers because they are collecting from the subscribers and content providers to allow each to connect to the other.

Senator Franken points out that the internet has become a primary platform for all speech that might be controversial.  In the past, speech arrived at a citizen’s home in many ways – newspapers, magazines, radio, television, etc.  The current trend is a consolidation of all types of speech to be delivered to a citizen’s home via the internet.  So, it service providers are allowed to decide what content is “approved” or “disapproved” then the free flow if ideas on which our democracy depends is at risk.

If we allow service providers to create barriers to content (and yes, a faster lane for companies wealthy enough to pay is a material barrier to new companies or individuals that don’t have the cash) we endanger all future content, from TV on down, because it will flow over the same internet.

The FCC is currently planning to allow “fast lanes” for sponsored content.  This is not a good idea, and it is refreshing to see a senator not only understand the issue in the short-term, but also its potential lasting detriment to free speech and innovation.

Here is a link to Senator Franken’s speech:  [link].



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