Civics · Community Informatics · Social Justice

The Hoopla Over the DC Court’s Ruling and Net Neutrality

There are several good articles quickly appearing regarding the DC Court’s rulings in favor of Verizon’s case against the FCC. I encourage readers to take a look at Sam Gusten’s Time Business and Money article, Dian Schaffhauser’s Campus Technology article, and Barbara Stripling’s Wired article for impacts related to business, education, and libraries, for instance.

I side with those who believe this will have significant ramifications for the type of Internet services we will see in the United States. The emphasis added is to highlight that this is a US ruling and I suspect it will mean a bifurcation in the essence of the Internet-in-use between the US and allies who like us continue to move towards neoliberal policies that prioritize trickle-down innovation, and those countries whose policies maintain a neutral Internet and open innovation. In the US I expect we will see improved services in cases in which our hardware manufacturers, our broadband providers, and our Internet service providers (e.g., cloud computing providers, streaming providers) have mutually supportive contractual agreements. We will see innovative ways to more tightly integrate services between hardware, software, and network in such cases. The innovation will thus be very top-down in nature in the US, with the strong favor going to the well-heeled established corporations.  The user experience to seamlessly and effortlessly consume select products will be vastly enhanced. To the extent that the corporate innovation is reflective of our true needs and opportunities, we will be better off because of this ruling.

By comparison, in countries where net neutrality is maintained as a policy, we will see equal treatment of all Internet traffic and opportunities for innovation to happen at all levels from garage to major corporate research labs. To the extent that corporate innovation is not reflective of individual and community needs and opportunities, opportunities for bottom-up, from-the-middle, and startup corporate innovation will help address those unmet needs and opportunities.

For ultimately the Internet is not one universal global entity, but rather a federation of the locals. Studying the Internet-in-use, then, is a way to also study the society and priorities that it reflects. From electorate to our three branches of government to the dominate corporate structures, we in the US have put our money on laissez-faire free-market capitalism and top-down innovation, whether consciously or blindly. Our Internet and other socio-technical systems are increasingly coming into alignment around this framing, and we’re doubling down our bets that this is the best way forward. In the US, the exceptions come in small chunks as municipalities (and tribal sovereign nations) choose to implement their own broadband-to-the-home services reflecting their own community values. But in many states now, future such municipal networks are now prohibited, so this is not a growth area at the moment.

One other thought comes to mind in reading the referenced articles. There is one thing in particular I haven’t seen mentioned in relation to the fateful decisions made by the FCC in 2002 in which they ruled broadband an information service instead of a common carrier like phones, a decision that setup the DC court’s ruling. The chairman of the FCC at the time was Michael Powell. He is currently the president of the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, a strong advocate and lobbyist on behalf of policies that open up innovation through decreased government regulation of broadband by the FCC and congress.

The ruling came as no surprise to me, nor do I expect action in the near term to implement policies that will reverse the ruling. The course the US broadband development is on was set a decade and more ago and has slowly been playing out since. We are living through a comparison of different Internet-in-use scenarios that will still take many more years, and perhaps decades, to fully play out. The course is not finalized yet, but only a more informed and active citizenry will be able to change the path.

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