In 2007, at a public forum at Coe College, in Iowa, Presidential candidate Barack Obama was asked about net neutrality. Specifically, “Would you make it a priority in your first year of office to reinstate net neutrality as the law of the land? And would you pledge to only appoint F.C.C. commissioners that support open Internet principles like net neutrality?”
“The answer is yes,” Obama replied. “I am a strong supporter of net neutrality.” Explaining, he said, “What you’ve been seeing is some lobbying that says that the servers and the various portals through which you’re getting information over the Internet should be able to be gatekeepers and to charge different rates to different Web sites…. And that I think destroys one of the best things about the Internet—which is that there is this incredible equality there.”
If reports in the Wall Street Journal are correct, Obama’s chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, Thomas Wheeler, has proposed a new rule that is an explicit and blatant violation of this promise. In fact, it permits and encourages exactly what Obama warned against: broadband carriers acting as gatekeepers and charging Web sites a payola payment to reach customers through a “fast lane.”
Late last night Wheeler released a statement accusing the Wall Street Journal of being “flat-out wrong.” Yet the Washington Post has confirmed, based on inside sources, that the new rule gives broadband providers “the ability to enter into individual negotiations with content providers … in a commercially reasonable matter.” That’s telecom-speak for payola payments, and a clear violation of Obama’s promise.
This is what one might call a net-discrimination rule, and, if enacted, it will profoundly change the Internet as a platform for free speech and small-scale innovation. It threatens to make the Internet just like everything else in American society: unequal in a way that deeply threatens our long-term prosperity.
Some history may help explain the situation. The new rule gives broadband providers what they’ve wanted for about a decade now: the right to speed up some traffic and degrade others. (With broadband, there is no such thing as accelerating some traffic without degrading other traffic.) We take it for granted that bloggers, start-ups, or nonprofits on an open Internet reach their audiences roughly the same way as everyone else. Now they won’t. They’ll be behind in the queue, watching as companies that can pay tolls to the cable companies speed ahead. The motivation is not complicated. The broadband carriers want to make more money for doing what they already do. Never mind that American carriers already charge some of the world’s highest prices, around sixty dollars or more per month for broadband, a service that costs less than five dollars to provide. To put it mildly, the cable and telephone companies don’t need more money.
In 2007, Obama understood all of this. Without net neutrality, the result would be “much better quality from the Fox News site and you’d be getting rotten service from the mom and pop sites.” That year, he swore to me personally that he was committed to defending net neutrality. Unfortunately, his F.C.C. chairman is in the process of violating a core promise to innovators, to the technology sector, and, really, to all of us who use the Internet.
Tim Wu is a professor at Columbia Law School and the author of “The Master Switch.” He has previously served as a senior advisor to the Federal Trade Commission and the chair of Free Press, an Internet advocacy organization.