The recent uproar regarding a closed-door deal between Google and Verizon) to throttle certain internet traffic (denied by both companies) points to an important issue that is not being handled well by the Obama administration.
“Net Neutrality” refers to an independent relationship between internet content providers and content distributors (known as Internet Service Providers or ISPs). From a user’s standpoint, this means that no distinction in ISP’s bandwidth is made between the powerful news sources such as Fox News and the small independent sources such as this blog. Elimination of net neutrality would result in fast access to those sites that can afford to pay the ISPs for priority, while other sites could be sluggish and even shut out due to internet timeouts. The Obama administration has not stepped up to the plate to ensure that Americans have equal access to a diversity of internet sources. FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski has been in talks with some of the major players, and has given lip service to the concept of net neutrality, but unless the President comes out with a clear policy on this, the corporate interests and big money will prevail.
This issue is part of a much larger problem that has been with us for the last dozen or so years. The ongoing demise of professional fact-based hard-hitting journalism is being replaced by 24/7 talking heads, sound-bite news reporting, and right-wing hate radio and television. Some pundits contend that the demise of newspapers is being offset by the explosion of internet services such as blogs, WikiLeaks, and Twitter. I disagree. (To WikiLeaks’ credit, it actually used traditional media such as the New York Times to do fact-checking on its Afghanistan documents).
The metamorphosis of the news business is just the symptom. A major cause of this journalistic illness is the consolidation of media companies into a few for-profit behemoths. (Here in New Jersey, this problem is being exacerbated by the governor’s evisceration of the only state-wide news source, NJN). While consolidation may be good for the shareholders and their bonus-driven CEOs, it spells disaster for consumers.
Anti-trust laws were passed over a century ago to ensure that consumers could benefit from competition. Monopolies would be illegal and there would be no price fixing among the major players in a particular industry. This worked well – consider the decade-long government effort which culminated with the breakup of AT&T and the Bell System. Most of the readers of this blog probably don’t remember the days when phone calls outside your immediate area were infrequent and special events due to their high cost. Now, after the breakup of AT&T and the infusion of competition, no one thinks twice about calling grandma from clear across the country.
Unfortunately, we are moving in the opposite direction today. The consolidation of content providers and ISPs will invariably limit the choices that consumers have. Elimination of net neutrality will result in high barriers to entry of small, independent providers.
The courtship between Google (the content provider) and Verizon (the content distributor) is only one example that is bad for the consumer. The pending merger of Comcast (both a provider and distributor) with NBC-Universal (also a provider/distributor) should be rejected by the Federal Trade Commission. Congress should pass legislation forbidding providers and distributors to be owned by the same entity. The rules regarding media ownership where the same company owns a majority of television, radio, and newspapers in a single city should be reinstated. But Congress, whose lifeblood is donations from the large corporations, will not initiate this action on its own. The President needs to show leadership and determination to ensure Americans have continued unfettered access to a diversity of media, opinions, and telecommunication services. This is a golden opportunity for Mr. Obama to show his stripes – will the emphasis be on corporate profits or on equal access for all?
OK. Enough of the serious stuff. This is for a laugh...
(From the hilariously funny Broadway show, Avenue Q)