Editorials

No toll lanes on Internet highway

A color illustration of a highway as a digital "express lane" leading to faster Internet connections.
A color illustration of a highway as a digital "express lane" leading to faster Internet connections. KRT

Most Americans avoid the gritty details of most federal regulatory issues. In fact, it’s all some of us can do to muster the energy to vote in a nonpresidential election year.

But sometimes the stakes are so high that people take the time to get engaged in complex policy. The Federal Communications Commission’s proposed rules for net neutrality so far have drawn comments from almost 4 million people; that’s how fearful Americans are that big corporations will co-opt and corrupt the free flow of information.

On Monday, yet another American weighed in on whether Internet service providers should be able to offer – and charge for – “fast lanes” for content. President Barack Obama made it clear that, at least as far as he’s concerned, this should not be allowed.

“I believe the FCC should create a new set of rules protecting net neutrality and ensuring that neither the cable company nor the phone company will be able to act as a gatekeeper, restricting what you can do or see online,” Obama said.

“This is a basic acknowledgment of the services ISPs provide to American homes and businesses, and the straightforward obligations necessary to ensure the network works for everyone – not just one or two companies.”

The president is right, and not a moment too soon in demanding a hard line. The telecommunications industry has been rolling his appointed FCC chairmen on this issue for years.

Last January, a federal court struck down net neutrality rules largely because in earlier decisions, the FCC had mistakenly classified cable and phone companies not as “telecommunications services,” but as “information services,” which are regulated more lightly.

Now the FCC is looking for a solution, knowing that if it simply reclassifies broadband as “telecommunications,” the industry will go to battle. The current debate largely has revolved around a “compromise” that would toughen rules for Internet service providers but allow them to create “fast” and “slow” lanes on a case-by-case basis.

This just creates a big industry loophole. It’s capitulation, not compromise. Unfortunately, there is no middle ground. The Internet is too integral to our daily lives to allow profit-making companies to make crucial decisions about access. The industry claims it can be trusted. It cannot.

We can wring our hands over regulation and how it may stifle innovation, but this is a crossroads. No choice is perfect, but consumers, not corporations, should come first.

If regulation does start to erode innovation and creativity, we can deregulate. But if we start down the road of a two-tiered information highway – one a wide smooth lane for the mega-corporations and the other a narrow, crowded, potholed lane for the rest of the masses – we’re going to have a very hard time backtracking if things go wrong.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said Monday that he, like Obama, wants to avoid Internet fast lanes – and that he wants to pass rules that are upheld in court.

“We must take the time to get the job done correctly,” he said. But this has gone on for a decade. Some 4 million Americans have spoken and it’s time for the FCC to reclassify the carriers, impose net neutrality by regulation and do right by the public interest, right down to the last, devilish detail.

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