Debate Forum: 12/2

Forum Center: The Internet as a public utility? (or, just google it) 

By Sarah Sidlow

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) recently came under fire for having weak rules in place for regulating the way Internet Service Providers (ISPs) (such as Time Warner Cable, Comcast and AT&T) do business. The video streaming service Netflix, in a widely reported deal last winter, negotiated with Internet giant Comcast, paying large sums of money in exchange for faster and more reliable access to Comcast’s bandwidth customers. This became one of the first instances in the history of the Internet in which a content provider like Netflix had to pay extra for reliable access to an ISP’s audience. 

The event also brought up an important issue: net neutrality, the idea that posits all content providers should have equal and free access to consumers.

Last week President Obama threw his support behind the notion a free and open Internet is a necessity to Americans’ lives. In fact, he argued, it is as important to the daily lives of Americans as electricity and telephone service – and it should, therefore, be regulated as such. 

Obama’s statement echoes a fear of Internet “fast lanes,” an option currently available from broadband providers such as Comcast, to make special deals that give content providers, such as Netflix, preferential treatment (like how fast its content can reach consumers or if it can reach them at all) as long as those deals are “commercially reasonable.” 

Obama urged the FCC to apply the “strictest rules possible” to ISPs in order to prevent such a trend. That approach, Obama contends, demands thinking about both wired and wireless broadband service as a public utility. The proposed ISP-as-a-public-utility reclassification, which must be approved by the FCC, would put Internet providers in the category of common carrier telecommunications services and subject them to instant FCC control. Obama further advocated the FCC ban Internet providers from blocking legal websites and from creating fast lanes or slowing down speeds for certain sites. 

Proponents of this push for reclassification argue net neutrality is a concept that must be protected by any means necessary – even if it means government intervention. It was one of the basic tenets of the Internet, they argue, that anyone could access information equally from a free and open worldwide web. If not kept in check, they say, service providers would serve as gatekeepers for their consumers, determining which information reaches their customers, based on which information provider is the highest bidder. They say these regulations are necessary for ensuring the little guys in the Internet world can get noticed, even if their pockets aren’t as deep as the big dogs’. And, they say, reclassifying the Internet as a public utility is a worthwhile proposition to that end.

Opponents generally agree with the notion that net neutrality is a concept worth protecting. However, they categorically object to reclassifying the Internet as a public utility. Instead, they posit that healthy competition bred in the free market will ultimately provide what is best for consumers. They say the rules proposed by Obama would kill online investment and innovation. Broadband companies, obvious opponents to this plan, say the government would be eliminating ways for them to raise revenue and would make it harder for them to manage their network traffic efficiently. Other opponents claim Internet users would be forced to pay a new federal tax on their monthly bills, similar to those taxes passed on to the consumer for phone access and electricity. 

Everyone, it seems, is arguing for the freedom of the Internet. The question is whether the Internet should remain free from the corporate greed and competition that exists in a free market or whether it should remain free from government intervention.

Reach DCP Editor Sarah Sidlow at

Debate Forum Question of the Week:

Is reclassifying the Internet as a public utility the right way to protect the idea of net neutrality?

Debate Left: The Internet must be declared a utility

By Michael Truax

The Internet is mankind’s most significant technological achievement in over a century. It has augmented and overturned nearly every other method of communication. It has enhanced and undermined social and political structures across the world. It has created and destroyed large swaths of the global economy.

The Internet has been, in a word, disruptive. There is no way for the developed world to avoid it or tame it, but we’re continuously finding new ways to harness it.

The battle over net neutrality is one of the most important debates of this time – it’s not just an economic matter, but social and political, as well. The Internet isn’t just a place where consumers shop and watch, but a global distributed network where they gather, socialize and organize.

To cable companies, the disrupting force of the Internet is negative. Their core product, video entertainment, is threatened by customers cutting their subscriptions for the first time in decades. Their formerly loyal subscribers aren’t opting for over-the-air television only, but for the trove of entertainment available online. Their phone customers are opting for services like Skype to augment mobile phones.

But the cable companies most often are also Internet service providers. In essence, the cable companies are the first line of service to their main competition. Unless the Internet is protected as a public utility by the Federal Communications Commission, the ISPs may brake it – or break it – to protect their legacy business and shave consumers.

With a rediscovered Yes-We-Can attitude, President Barack Obama has stepped back into the conversation with his most definitive statement since 2008. After the midterm election slaughter by the Republicans made bipartisan action, or action of any kind, less likely, the president came out with a strong statement in favor of net neutrality.

“For almost a century,” he said, “our law has recognized that companies who connect you to the world have special obligations not to exploit the monopoly they enjoy over access into and out of your home or business.”

Except that’s the ISPs’ mission: to exploit consumers and digital media to ensure a generous cut for themselves. The cable companies, with legally prescribed regional monopolies, have already become experts at extracting value from the lack of competition. The cable companies’ mission is to maximize value for their shareholders, not serve the public good, even in cases such as this, where the public good outweighs the value to their shareholders.

To be clear, the president should have said this: The cable companies may profit from providing the public utility of the Internet, but they may not do it at the expense of the public’s speech or the massive digital economy.

Under a plan of paid prioritization, bandwidth throttling or even legal website blocking, startups would need to pay for a commercial partnership (read: ransom) to reach their audiences. Say goodbye to tech startups run out of a garage or dorm room, and farewell to digital innovators with great ideas but little capital.

“Investment in wired and wireless networks has supported jobs and made America the center of a vibrant ecosystem of digital devices, apps and platforms that fuel growth and expand opportunity,” the president’s statement read.

It’s a good start, but even that sells the importance of the digital economy. The Internet is much more than YouTube, Facebook and Netflix. Defining the importance of the Internet by just those companies would be like limiting the scope of electricity’s relevance to neon lights and movie projectors. It’s not just digital services that depend on the Internet, but all business.

Large firms like Procter & Gamble and General Electric may rely on an infrastructure that includes high-bandwidth teleconferencing, for example. Others have innovative digital phone systems, cloud backups or productivity software that require a reliable system at reasonable prices. However, it’s not multinationals that would be hurt most by throttling and fees, but small businesses that depend on these same services.

It’s not difficult to imagine how the Internet would play out in the cable companies’ dreams: The services that compete with the cable companies’ own, such as phone systems or video content, would be the first to be throttled, without substantial fees paid by the provider and consumer. Subscribers would pay for complex bundles on top of their baseline Internet services. Consumers would have access to the cable companies’ branded video and audio streams, complete with obscene levels of advertisements.

That all sounds a little too familiar to current cable customers. It’s close enough to their experience to give subscribers traumatic flashbacks of 90-minute service calls to cable company help lines.

The president’s definitive take on the matter, however, is watered down by his inconsistent action and inaction: How can he credibly take up this cause after years of general avoidance? Isn’t he the one who appointed former cable executive Tom Wheeler, who is “skeptical” of net neutrality according to one recent headline, to the head of the Federal Communications Commission? Why did he wait until his party was routed in the midterm elections?

It is critical to end this debate now and declare the Internet a public utility, before the Internet service providers fortify an unfair system. It has already started, with Comcast’s deal to prioritize Netflix in February of this year. Like electricity, the Internet is too important and versatile to allow private companies to block and ransom it to the public. Definitive action now would help protect the platform for decades to come.

Michael Truax is a freelance writer, digital marketing consultant, entertainment enthusiast and bar trivia champion living in West Chester, Ohio. He can be reached at

Debate Right: Free speech or government control?

By Dave Westbrock

Net neutrality, the most recent euphemism to portray fairness with regard to Internet traffic is certainly not neutral, meaning I suppose equal treatment for anyone who wants to go surfing. It is, in fact, the latest ploy for government control of an important tool for free speech. This is particularly true in an era when most broadcast media simply function as vassals to the Obama Administration. In the past few days, email obtained from the Department of Justice under the Freedom of Information Act, revealed CBS was asked to suppress reporting by Sharyl Attkisson, an investigative reporter who was digging into the Fast and Furious scandal. The Attorney General had been stonewalling Congress and the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, earning him contempt of Congress. CBS subsequently nixed further reporting on the issue. What happened to the Fourth Estate over the past five years is testament to the need for a truly free and unbiased information source.

The Internet provides such a vehicle. But it is now under assault by the same administration that has bent the broadcast media and most of the print media to its agenda. The question is: who controls the press? The answer these days, for the most part, seems to be the White House.

Moreover, who controls the Internet? The Internet was originally known as ARPANET (no, it wasn’t Al Gore) and was conceived at the Pentagon to connect computers between universities and government agencies. It eventually evolved into the World Wide Web and is currently under the control of no one. The protocol (TCP/IP) upon which all Internet protocols operate is not patented and is for use by anyone. This is aside from the fact that the major information technology companies, such as Google, Microsoft and others, by virtue of advances in computing they brought to the market, tend to dominate the web. The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) provides guidelines under which standards for web site engineering and management take place, under the auspices of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). The current process ensures a fair and open exchange of information and ideas. A free market company, Network Solutions, Inc., is responsible for assigning domain names for .com and .net websites. Many companies are responsible and national companies in other countries register domain names. Control is diverse. Government has a role, however, particularly in protecting the system from fraud and protecting commerce.

Now comes net neutrality, a concept many would agree is worthwhile as a method to ensure equal access to all Internet providers, regardless of size or economic power. But here comes the rub. Who will regulate such neutrality? The Federal Communications Commission, in April of this year, announced consideration to reclassify the Internet broadband as a telecommunications service, a common carrier, resulting in making the Internet a regulated utility – a heavily and politically regulated one. Does anyone remember the Fairness Doctrine, propounded by the FCC in 1949, requiring television and radio stations to provide “fair and balanced” treatment of controversial issues since the airwaves constituted a public trust? Who determines what is fair and balanced: some federal commissars acting on behalf of the American people? Most of our citizens these days have had enough of the fairness of the NSA, the IRS and the Department of Justice to know the feds just aren’t fair. Fortunately, the Doctrine was reversed in 1987 with the realization Americans were not stupid and could discriminate between what is fair and what is biased. Jonathan Gruber, however, may disagree. Now the radio media is dominated by the free market and conservative programming commands the lion’s share of the airwaves simply because more people want to listen to its talkers. There has been a move over the last 20 years to bring it back and force people to listen to networks like Air America, which were simply unpopular and failed in a free market – a reason for liberals to hate it. We must, after all, be forced to eat our peas even if we don’t like them.

Specifically, the issue became controversial when some Internet companies generated an increasing amount of data. Some have introduced Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) on a subscription basis, leading some to believe this unfair. If I want to pay for a more efficient service by subscription, should I not be free to buy it? Or should some government star chamber be allowed to make the rules and prevent me from doing so? Is this fair in a free market, or are we rapidly transforming into something else – a fundamental transformation of America as stated by the president in his inaugural address?

No, what is passed off as fairness under the guise of net neutrality stands as yet another part of the agenda to take control not only of your health care, how you practice your profession, your education, but now what information you will be allowed to see and hear. George Orwell’s “1984” was a novel, but in these United States it is rapidly becoming reality. 

Dr. Westbrock has been in private medical practice for 35 years. He was the Republican candidate for the U.S House of Representatives in 1994 and 1996. He has written and lectured extensively on the subject of healthcare reform and healthcare policy. He can be reached at

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Reach DCP editor Sarah Sidlow at

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