Editorial by Tom Norton
“Net Neutrality.” The words are often lost on most Americans, but rarely in modern times have two words been so critical to the US economy and the basic freedoms of the average American citizen. I’ll be frank, this article is in no way an attempt to hear both sides; primarily due to the fact that “both sides” are not equal arguments.
An open internet, that is, an internet that is fully accessible by any person, anywhere in the US with no restrictions on the capacity, (as long as they pay for it) imposed on it by outside forces is the very same internet that has become a fundamental part of the US economy.
That’s a mouthful, but then so is the Internet.
Think about it for a moment. Everything, literally everything is now on the internet; business, medicine, retail sales, education, communication, television broadcast, entertainment…nearly all commerce in the USA, in some way, hums down the wires that flow up and down our streets.
Not so, just 15 years ago. The speed with which the internet has become the foundation of nearly all commerce in the US economy is much like how around 1900, very, very few businesses in the US relied on electricity. Kerosene oil lamps and some gas were the rule, but by 1920 nearly all US businesses and homes were relying on electricity. Within that short span, a business or home functioning without electricity was unthinkable and while there were no threats of corporate control of electricity the way there are threats of corporate control of the Internet, the parallels are striking.
Like electricity, the internet revolutionized the way business and communication was done. Things became more efficient, faster, smarter and in the course, just like when the economy encountered electricity, things took a giant leap forward. And the parallels don’t stop there.
Electricity in the United States is regulated by the government and the biggest factor of that regulation is that electricity in the US is completely open to all. There is no limit to what you can use, as long as you pay for it. Our representative government insists on this. Why? Visionaries early on, realized how fundamentally important electricity and an open electrical grid would be for an economy to grow and the fact that that insistence worked so well for the economy has become the paradigm for the Internet today.
Of course what triggered all of this was the bad corporate behavior that experts warned us about more than a decade ago. The concern was that private corporations, controlling the internet, would use that control to stifle competition and innovation that may have threatened their private business model. That’s precisely what large cable providers did to Netflix; all the while insisting that they weren’t.
Netflix was suspicious that their internet connectivity to consumer’s homes was being “throttled.” Placed in a “slow lane,” if you will. Consumers, annoyed that the product they purchased from Netflix wouldn’t download were then being offered a “competing” product from cable providers, which, wouldn’t you know, moved lickity split through the internet they were controlling. A classic case.
Imagine, if you will, that Michigan’s power grid was controlled private corporations and here in Michigan, Chrysler had controlling stock. Let’s say that beginning in the late 1920’s, Chrysler, acting on that control, (and again because the electric grid was unregulated) began choking off the electricity supply to GM factories, supplying only half what was needed and demanding they pay more than others if they wanted the exact same service. Imagine how crippling it would have been to GM and how that lack of competition would have damaged our economy. We wouldn’t know what we missed, except we all would be driving Chryslers. If that sounds like extortion, in fact it is and its absolutely no way for an economy to operate if it’s going to be robust, competitive and nurture innovation.
But it is what cable providers and phone companies were ready to do and already doing with the Internet. By attempting to control the Internet, these private corporate interests were regulating it their own way; putting a stranglehold on competitors and holding them hostage for huge sums of money, or else…your internet speeds would slow to a trickle and your company which used the Internet as a foundation, would be forced out of business.
That sounds more like Economics 101 in Putin’s Russia than in the United States.
If the US economy were not nearly 100% reliant on the Internet for survival this might not make such a big deal; just another aspect of the shark tank that business swims in. Fortunately with the recent re-classification of the internet by the FCC, the federal government recognized that the big fish eating all the little fish is no way to advance economic growth and such behavior by the giant corporations would in fact stifle growth, threatening the common good. Precisely the same way it would have done had private corporate interests been able to put a stranglehold on the electrical grid or the railroads.
Thankfully the federal government recognized the fundamental importance of electricity to economic activity. The fed ensured that electricity was completely open to anyone for as much as they wanted as long as they paid for what they used and (this is the key) the prices were not rigged to destroy competition. It’s a near precise parallel to the argument in favor of internet neutrality, or ‘net neutrality.’
In essence, the internet, like the electrical grid, must remain perfectly neutral. It’s irrelevant who is using the Internet and for what. You simply pay a fair price for what you use and no one decides to give you less and the other guy more. This way, the Internet is a tool for business to use and expand on, instead of being used as a weapon by a few goliaths to crush anyone who dared to compete with them.
The neutrality of the electrical grid heavily contributed to making the US economy the largest, wealthiest, most resilient economy in the world. I shudder to think how much smaller our economy would be without a neutral electrical grid 100 years ago and I rejoice at the prospect of economic growth based on a completely neutral and fully open Internet. FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler and the three commissioners who voted with him did precisely the right thing when they re-classified the internet as open to all. History (and the nation’s economy) will smile on this decision.
Tom Norton is the General Manager of WKTV Community Media & Television and has been a producer and leader involved in television and communications for nearly 30 years.