Business & Economy

FCC plan could make the Internet a gated community, advocates say

The Worldwide Web is a universe of information, and we travel through it largely unfettered, searching for whatever we want — videos, blog posts, obscure products and services, whole catalogs of knowledge like Wikipedia. It is, as experts say, an open Internet where access to any and all information (with the exception of newspapers behind paywalls) is free.

Though the Internet is young (its evolution accelerated in the mid-1990s), it’s hard to imagine what life would be like without the Web. The technology has revolutionized commerce and the dissemination of information.

It’s hard to imagine a new era in which the Internet is carved up into galaxies and black holes controlled by cable companies, but that’s what Open Internet advocates say could happen.

Cable companies including Comcast, Time Warner, Charter, Cablevision, Verizon and AT&T are pressing the Federal Communications Commission to adopt new pay-to-play rules that would effectively block free access to the Internet.

The FCC has floated a plan to allow “paid prioritization” tiers on the Internet. Companies and individuals who could afford it would pay a premium to telecommunications companies for faster access to the Web, while everyone else would have a “minimum level of service.”

The proposal has generated an outcry from Open Internet advocates who say the cable companies want to limit free, public access to information. Libraries, nonprofits, small retailers would suffer, while big retailers, news organizations and corporations would benefit from the ghettoization of the Web.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, heard from supporters of an Open Internet — a librarian, the owners of The Vermont Country Store and Logic Supply, and a former FCC commissioner — at a field hearing held at the University of Vermont on Tuesday. Leahy is pressuring the FCC to adopt a “Bill of Rights for the online world.” In a commentary penned for the Huffington Post this week, he declared that the government “cannot allow an Internet that is divided into haves and have nots.”

Earlier this year, the D.C. Court of Appeals struck down the FCC’s 2010 open Internet rules. In April, the FCC proposed new rules that would ban “commercially unreasonable” competition and would allow unregulated, paid prioritization.

Michael Copps, a former FCC commissioner who is now an advocate for the nonprofit group Common Cause, was one of four witnesses who testified at Leahy’s hearing. The Internet, Copps said, is the most “opportunity-creating tool of our time.” If the FCC rules are adopted, he believes the Web will become “the playground of the privileged few” that would create “a stratified and unequal America.”

Copps says the impact on society would be dramatic: Innovators and start-ups would suffer; small retailers would be relegated to the sidelines; and distance-learning would be hampered.

Worst of all, free expression and democratic engagement would suffer, Copps said. “An Internet controlled and managed for the benefit of the ‘haves, discriminates against our rights not just as consumers, but more importantly, as citizens,” he said.

Marty Reid, the Vermont State Librarian, told the panel that no-fee access to the Internet is crucial to an informed and engaged citizenry. Libraries cannot fulfill their mission without an Open Internet, she said. A tiered system would create insurmountable obstacles for disenfranchised citizens who are unemployed, under employed and can’t afford Internet service.

Lisa Groenevelde, co-owner of Logic Supply. Photo by Anne Galloway/VTDigger
Lisa Groenevelde, co-owner of Logic Supply. Photo by Anne Galloway/VTDigger

Online sales represent 40 percent of The Vermont Country Store’s business. Cabot Orton, co-proprietor, compared the Open Internet to Rural Free Delivery which was essential to the success of his family’s business when his grandparents first started the catalog company 70 years ago.

Orton said the FCC rules would hold small companies ransom and marginalize websites that don’t pay a premium.

“We don’t want to imagine an America with two Internets: a fast one for giant corporations and a slow one for everyone else,” Orton said.

A tiered Web would stifle innovation and creativity, which he says is the lifeblood of small businesses.

Logic Supply, an industrial computer manufacturer, could lose its competitive edge over Taiwanese companies if the FCC allows paid prioritization, according to Lisa Groeneveld, co-founder and chief operating officer of the South Burlington company.

Search engines prefer faster websites, as do customers, and businesses that can’t pay more for access would suffer, she said. Logic Supply would have to take funds away from research and hiring to pay for the Internet fees, she said.

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Anne Galloway

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  • Tiered internet service would be a nightmare for small companies which depend on internet access for business. I already pay a monthly access fee of nearly $50. If the tiered system became reality, it would require me to spend a lot of time determining what ISP was charging what for various plans and the impact of those policies for businesses whose sites I manage and then figure out how much it would cost to upgrade and whether it makes sense to do so. Small businesses are already burdened by policies which favor big business over small business. We don’t need more of this.

  • Walter Carpenter

    ” Small businesses are already burdened by policies which favor big business over small business. ”

    You’re right, Gary. It is time to nationalize the Internet and get these big companies like comcast out of it.

  • Janice Prindle

    The FCC definition of minimal level of service is what is allowing interstate corporations like Fairpoint get away with charging big bucks for inadequate service already. (They are legally allowed to contract with people like me to deliver “up to” 15 and then actually deliver barely 2, in a very spotty way; FCC requires them only to be within 80 percent of the low bar set for “high speed” Internet. The state can do nothing.) These pay-to-play rules will simply magnify what is already an intolerable , inequitable situation. Senator Leahy, I hope you will prevail in putting an end to this disaster. It is no less than a death blow to our democracy, cutting off the majority of ordinary people from affordable access to information the Koch brothers et al. don’t want us to have, from the chief means of networking for political action today, and from the ability to engage in free enterprise. It will ultimately impoverish us all. No joke.

  • Thank you for clarifying what we stand to lose if we lose the internet as we know it.

    I hope the commonsense, democratic ideals voiced at the hearing will prevail to protect the internet from what amounts to extortion and censorship.

    Chairman Wheeler’s double-speak effectively clouds how detrimental the pay-to-play scheme would be for all Americans (corporations aren’t people, despite Monday’s discriminatory supreme court ruling – boycott Hobby Lobby).

    Sad to say, we’ve grown accustomed to rampant crony-capitalism, but the unabashed grab for internet dominance by the FCC/telecom monopolies marks a new low.

    If it ain’t broke, why fix it?

    The FCC is already MIA in terms of meaningful regulation over exposure levels from cell towers, smart meters, antennas, cell phones and WiFi. Internet “regulation” and tiered pricing would not fare any better, and would engender a 1000 exploitative loopholes.

    This is a defining issue, one which will determine if we are a nominal or true democracy.

    We need Senator Leahy’s “Bill of Rights for the online world” now.

  • Bill Olenick

    I was able to start a new enterprise that employs Vermonters during the low tourist season, when jobs are scarce in my area and was able to set everything up due to free assess to the internet.
    I did all my research and brought supplies and equipment easily due to free assess to the web.
    Anything a federal government agency proposes on its own,without a congressional decree,should be suspect as these proposals are usually self serving to expand an out of control federal government with the end result being the feds lording over we the citizens when it should be that the Fed serve we the people.
    Do not allow federal agencies the power to do this as they can not even balance a budget.
    Strip them of this possibility for abuse and say NO to everything they propose until they get their own house in order.
    These proposals just bog down the whole works and the federal employees who make these time wasting proposals could care less it seems these days…just so no,enough is enough!

  • Mary Alice Bisbee

    If we lose equal access to the internet it will be just one more nail in the coffin to shutting we the people out of the real world of money and power. We must fight for our freedom just as our forefathers and mothers did back in 1776!

  • rosemarie jackowski

    The poor have been on the wrong side of the digital divide ever since the Internet started.

    If we really want democracy, we need all citizens to have access to the Internet and also to C-Span. This is especially true in areas where access to information is very limited… where newspapers omit important news such as the names on the ballot etc.