Josh Levy is Internet Campaign Director at Free Press, a US nonprofit media advocacy organization based in North Hampton, Massachusetts and Washington, D.C. Free Press focuses on bringing the public to weigh in on policy discussions on the future of our media system and technology, specifically the Internet. They focus on both grassroots mobilization and inside-the-Beltway discussions, lobbying, and strategy development.
I have known Levy for a number of years and have long admired the work that both he and Free Press are doing, particularly around preserving the Internet as we know it. (Surprise! I love the Internet.) I talked with him about the threats facing the Internet today, which many might be surprised to find are not foreign, but domestic and political.
One of the things I see Free Press talk about a lot, or campaign about a lot, is “saving the Internet as we know it.” I guess if I think of my self of the average Internet user, I sort of think the Internet is going to exist as it does right now, and will sort of always exist and be there as I understand it to be. How is the Internet at risk?
The media system that we have, the system of interrelated systems that delivers information to us and pushes it out to the world, exists both as a function of invention—people developed radio, television, and the Internet—and a system of policy decisions to enable those things to develop in the way that they did. Those things always go hand-in-hand, and that’s why the FCC was created to manage the communications networks in the 1930s and to help push better public interest policy forward. At that time it was to make sure that the radio waves didn’t become so dominated by a handful of big companies and the interests of those companies that they stop reflecting the interest of the Americans who technically own the airwaves.
The Internet is a really good example of this. We have the Internet because of government policy. It was developed in a government agency, the Defense Department, and then the FCC became in charge of not only making sure people don’t swear on the airwaves, but also guiding the future of communications networks. Ideally [they accomplish this] the way that we want them to by keeping their hands that flows out of these networks and just making sure that everyone has access to them. We got the Internet we see now because polices were set in place early on to make sure that all these networks that make up the Internet talk to each other and no corporate owner could get between two networks and stop them from talking to each other.
We are now facing the end of the Internet as we know it, which is this decentralized, still sort of open but rapidly closing network, because of government policies going in the wrong direction. Government policy has allowed corporate owners like Comcast and Verizon to harm the Internet and treat it like a newspaper that they can edit and censor. That is actually exactly what Verizon has said that it wants to do and should have the freedom to do. That’s what we are referring to when we say that.
Why can’t we just let the market take care of this, and just assume that corporations working in their best interest would ideally self-regulate to the point of keeping their consumers satisfied?
That is exactly what we want and wish we could have. And if we had an actual market, an actual free market when it came to broadband services, the need for protection from the government of Internet users would be much less. In more than 80% of communities around the country, you have no more than two broadband providers but you’ve really got one. You’ve got cable and DSL, but DSL as you know is inferior cable. It is barely scratching the surface of what you can justifiably call high speed broadband. Even the cable services that we have, compared to most of the developed world, are slow compared to Estonia, France, all of the rest of Western Europe, Korea, Japan and so-on. So we have this situation in which most of us are locked in to a cable provider that provides the fastest service you can get and there is no alternative so therefore there is no market or competition and the reality is that there is not much entrance into one of these markets by becoming a cable provider yourself, or buying up a bunch of fiber and laying that as it is prohibitively expensive. There is almost never an opportunity for an entrepreneur to create an alternative network because you can’t get the start-up capital that you would need.
The one alternative to that would be for municipalities to create their own systems because in a lot of cases a city, take North Hampton or Portland, has the infrastructure in place to do this in their electrical system and via existing telephone polls, et cetera. It can either lay it in the ground or above ground on polls and get a fairly cheap fiber system running. That alternative is fairly threatening to the cable providers who have in 19 states helped pass laws that outlaw the creation of municipal broadband systems because they don’t want any competition. So yes, that would be awesome if we had an actual market, a free market where there was competition, so that people could compete on price, quality and speed and therefore it would not be in the company’s interest to censor content or restrict bandwidth but that doesn’t exist. In the lack of any actual competition, you have companies like Comcast or Verizon who want to compete with Netflix and HBO and other content providers and their solution to that is by creating artificial ways of boxing out competitors by doing, say, what Verizon wants to do: charging Netflix extra to access Verizon users, which is a cost that would trickle down to us, the users, as well as make it harder for any start-up to actually compete because Verizon wants to create its own video streaming business. It said exactly all of this stuff in a court case back in September that laid all of this out. It is not a hidden agenda at all.
That’s what we talk about when we refer to the end of the Internet as we know it. No competition, the vast majority of us being locked in to our service provider that abuses our rights to connect and communicate on the Internet and there is no recourse.
Levy and Free Press are expecting a ruling on the aforementioned Verizon case any day now.
To find out how you can help Free Press fight back against these changes, visit their Save the Internet campaign page.
You can also read Levy’s interesting and enlightening wrap up on the past year of progress and setbacks in Internet Freedom here.
And also check out Jenn Topper’s piece The End of the Internet As we Know It here.