At the turn of the century, high-speed Internet access service was present in about 2 percent of American homes. Today, that figure stands at nearly 60 percent. No other technology even comes close to competing with this pace of adoptionnot the telephone, television, the automobile, cable TV, cell phone, or even the computer itself.1
It’s human nature, I guess. Invent anything as far-reaching, fast-growing, and powerful as the Internet and someone will try to corner the market. Someone will try to control it. In the first two articles of this series, we discussed Net Neutrality, what we all stand to lose financially in terms of national competitiveness if the wrong entities gain control of the Internet, and how these entities manipulate that control to their advantage rather than for the common good.
Net Neutrality is a principle that preserves the free and open Internet by affirming that Internet service providers may not discriminate between different kinds of content and applications online. It guarantees a level playing field for all websites and Internet technologies as well as for Internet users large and small.
Net Neutrality protects the consumer's right to use any equipment, content, application, or service without interference from the network provider. It espouses the notion that a provider’s job is to move data, not to choose which data to move.
What Would Our World Look Like Without Net Neutrality?
Absent Net Neutrality, innovation would be stifled and access to information would be restricted. Consumer choice and free speech would be sacrificed to the financial interests of a few large corporations that would for practical purposes “own” the Internet. Without Net Neutrality, the Internet will look more like cable TV. Network owners will decide which channels, content, and applications are available. Consumers will have to choose from their menu and have to pay their prices. When one combines this with the consolidation in media ownership over the past generation into the hands of only half-dozen players, losing the last truly “free” news outlet could be chilling indeed.
Consider what has happened with media ownership over the last few years:
- On June 2, 2003, the FCC, in a 3-2 vote under Chairman Michael Powell, approved new media ownership laws that removed many of the restrictions previously imposed to limit ownership of media within a local area. The changes were not (as customary) first made available to the public for a comment period. As a result of this action, single-company ownership of media in a given market was permitted up to 45 percent (formerly 35 percent, and up from 25 percent in 1985) of that market. Restrictions on newspaper and TV station ownership in the same market were removed. All TV channels, magazines, newspapers, cable, and Internet services were to now be counted in a “weighted” manner based on people's average tendency to find news on that medium. At the same time, whether a channel actually contains news was no longer considered in counting the percentage of a medium owned by one owner. Previous requirements for the periodic review of licenses were changed, and licenses were to be no longer reviewed for "public-interest" considerations.
- The decision by the FCC was overturned by the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in Prometheus Radio Project v. FCC in June, 2004. The majority ruled 2-1 against the FCC and ordered the commission to reconfigure how it justified raising ownership limits. Because the Supreme Court declined to hear the appeal, the ruling stood.
- The FCC then acted again on December 18, 2007, to “ensure the viability of America’s newspapers” and to address the issues previously struck down by the Court of Appeals. It voted to rescind a statute that forbids a single company to own both a newspaper and a television or radio station in the same standard metropolitan statistical area.2 This is particularly bothersome because data on ownership and market share of media companies in the U.S. is not held in the public domain.3 It’s chilling. Nobody really knows who is controlling our news.
It’s part of a disturbing trend. According to one source, the Media Reform Information Center, the number of corporations that control a majority of U.S. media (including newspapers, magazines, TV, radio, books, music movies, videos, wire services, and photo agencies) fell from 50 in 1983 to just 5 in 2004.4 Whether these figures are gospel or not may be a point of debate. What is not subject to debate is the fact that whatever the precise numbers, control of the media is in far fewer hands these days. That can be a problem. Anyone remember Germany in 1933?
A free and open Internet counteracts this trend and makes the country more democratic. With a free and open Internet, any Internet site can have the reach of a TV or radio station.
The loss of Net Neutrality would end this unparalleled opportunity for freedom of expression. It would be like the 1700s would have been if someone owned all the printing presses, paper, and ink. (Or perhaps that really was how it was?)
The last 20 years have seen changes and consolidation in media of all kinds that has created an entirely new dynamic. At the same time, though, growth of the Internet has created a new medium that allows for truly democratic participation in our democracy. In many ways, the Internet has counteracted many of the undesirable trends in media ownershipe.g., too much power in the hands of too few people or unaccountable corporations.
Arguably, the Internet has elevated the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution (guaranteeing freedom of speech) to a whole new level. Moreover, it has done so in a way that has never been done before, at least in living memory.Footnotes
1 Comments of Free Press before the Federal Communications Commission, January 14, 2010.
2 FCC Commissioners Deborah Taylor-Tate and Robert McDowell joined Chairman Martin in voting in favor of the rule change. Commissioners Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein, both Democrats, opposed the change.
3 Academics, for example at MIT Media Lab and NYU, have struggled to find data that show reliably the concentration of media ownership to no avail.
4 In 2004, Ben Bagdikian's book, The New Media Monopoly, shows that only five huge corporationsTime Warner, Disney, Murdoch's News Corporation, Bertelsmann of Germany, and Viacom (formerly CBS)now control most of the media industry in the U.S. General Electric's NBC is a close sixth.