The Free Press, Mankato, MN

September 11, 2013

Net neutrality could be threatened by decision

Why it matters: Court decision could damage the concept that all legal Internet sites should get equal treatment and have equal access to users.

The Mankato Free Press

---- — The unfettered Internet that Americans have come to know and expect may be in danger if observers of three federal judges are correct.

The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals this week began hearing arguments in a case the could have profound effects on the content and speed of access on the Internet.

At issue is “Net neutrality,” the concept that creators of any type of legal content all have an equal ability to reach consumers on the Internet.

But some Internet service providers — including Verizon, which brought the legal challenge to the court — argue they should be able to discriminate against certain websites and charge some sites more money to provide their content at a faster speed than others.

According to the congressional newspaper The Hill, two of the three federal judges seemed unconvinced that the Federal Communications Commission has the authority to require Internet providers to treat all legal content equally and deliver it at the same speed.

If that is the court’s ultimate decision, certain wealthy companies will be able to buy greater access to Internet users. That could prevent the next Google or Facebook from getting off the ground and it could mean that small businesses or individuals who create a website or video for business use or entertainment would have less access to users. And it could mean popular sites such as Netflix could be blocked or its feeds slowed if a wealthier competitor pays a service provider such as Verizon enough money.

And it’s not just movies and entertainment choices that would be at risk. As virtually all information moves online — including your medical records and other important information — it’s more important than ever that the government ensure the companies that provide Internet service do not play favorites on what information is transmitted or how fast it’s delivered.

The Obama administration has fully supported Net neutrality and its FCC believes it does have authority through the Telecommunications Act of 1996 to require Internet providers to give all creators a level playing field on the Internet.

If Net neutrality loses out in the courts, Congress needs to define that the FCC does indeed have authority to require it.

Unfortunately, that may be difficult to achieve. Many congressional Republicans oppose Net neutrality. Their indefensible opposition hinges on their idea that it is a unnecessary government involvement in private business.

Yes, Internet service providers are private businesses, but the Internet needs to be protected as a public forum where all voices — no matter how poor or wealthy — have an equal chance of offering content. The free market will decide if that content is worth viewing or deemed valuable.