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Consumers would lose out with Internet privatization

Man, have I got a deal for you.

What if I said there was a way for companies to charge for part of the existing public infrastructure that is already paid for, downgrade services operating at maximum efficiency and create massive organizational problems within a system that doesn’t experience them – all for the low, low price of whatever these companies care to charge?

Welcome to the brave new world of telecommunications law and perhaps the end of the “common carrier” era, where the Internet may soon shift from an open-access public infrastructure to a privatized network and access is granted at the discretion of corporate gatekeepers.

The Internet, as it is known today, is “free, open and nondiscriminatory,” wrote Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy in the February issue of The Nation. Basically, anyone with the technical know-how and a modicum of capital can start a Web site featuring any material they care to post (with the obvious exceptions of child pornography, snuff films, etc.), and it instantly becomes available to whoever might stumble across it.

But several powerful telecommunications giants, including Cisco Systems, AT&T and Motorola, to name a few, are now trench-deep in a battle to overturn the fundamentally unrestricted nature of the Internet by dismembering the extant regulatory laws and auctioning off the available broadband spectrum to the highest bidder.

Slightly more than a decade since its explosion as a popular means of communication (after a decades-long evolution in the laboratories of academia), the Internet has spawned its own subordinate economy, from service providers (AOL, Bright House, etc.) to peer-to-peer facilitation networks (such as the newly legitimized Napster) and the revolutionary availability of commercial music downloads, Apple’s iTunes Music Store chief among them.

The key to all this free enterprise is the non-preferential nature of the medium. The Internet, per se, has no stake in who thrives or fails, whether Verizon can provide more reliable service than Comcast, if Hotmail has a more successful e-mail delivery rate than Google’s Gmail or if Greenparty.org loads faster or slower than, say, Redstate.com. It’s public infrastructure, pure and simple, and any limitations that exist are the participants’ own.

The real problem with the prospect of Internet privatization is that it sets the stage for artificial obstructions inherent in a pay-to-play system. This is not a dire prediction, but the actual stated intent of the directors of several interested telecommunications conglomerates. The idea is to create a multi-tiered system, with the highest premium placed on unfettered access to the broadband and “more affordable” fees for slower download speeds, more pop-up ads and even a limit on the number of e-mails sent and received per billing cycle. Further, these moguls are not averse to providing essentially mercenary services by ensuring that Site X loads slower than Site Y, guaranteed.

When Chester was interviewed on Pacifica Radio’s Democracy Now!, co-host Juan Gonzalez drew the analogy that the proposed tier system was like a commercial airliner, wherein one can choose from first-class, business class or coach seating. Chester concurred – but I have to disagree, because the analogy grants the proposed privatization a conceit that it doesn’t quite deserve.

The illusion being foisted here is that all broadband users are riding in coach class, and if the telecommunications laws are updated, there will suddenly be made available new vistas of business class and plush, luxurious first-class compartments. The reality, though, is that everybody’s already in first class. If you have a standard residential broadband connection, you’re already experiencing nearly all the Internet has to offer, limited only by the capabilities of your computer. If deregulation and privatization becomes the law of the land, premiums will likely be brought to bear on what people already get for a standardized price – and in the end, some minority portion of users will remain in first class while everyone else gets booted down to the cargo hold with the caged animals and luggage.

It was the Internet’s open nature that allowed powerhouses such as Amazon, Google and eBay to blossom in the first place, revolutionizing the way people shop, learn and communicate. Adding pointless tollbooths along the “information superhighway” will only serve to retard future growth and innovation. Producers and consumers alike will be best served by allowing the public infrastructure to continue operating in the public interest.

Ryan McGeeney is a senior majoring in political science.