For the past few months, the media has been awash with stories about net neutrality. Recently, these stories became particularly salient for Vermonters, when Senator Patrick Leahy, who chairs the United States Senate Judiciary Committee, brought a field hearing on the FCC’s proposal on “Protecting and Promoting the Open Internet” to Burlington, Vermont.
Net neutrality is the idea that the Internet should remain a level playing field for anyone to access. It is the concept that anyone should be able to connect to and access any information online, as well as voice any opinion online, without having their access to certain websites or certain types of information blocked, or their speed throttled.
Earlier this year, a DC circuit court struck down the FCC’s Open Internet Order. This order from 2010 was a step that the FCC had taken to maintain an open and free Internet. It gave consumers the right to know how their networks were being managed and to use whatever device they wanted to access any legal information they were looking for, as well as to say whatever they wanted online without a central authority (such as a large broadband provider) deciding what access its consumers might have.
Since the court decision, the FCC came out with a new proposal that, among other things, would create the option of providing a faster Internet channel to those who could afford to pay more for it (called “paid prioritization”). A great explanation of this can be found in John Oliver’s 13-minute bit. This “fast lane” vs. “slow lane” aspect of the proposal has caused thousands of open Internet advocates to speak up, and over 130,000 comments have already been filed on the proposal itself in the last thirty days. (For reference, other FCC proposals have received between 11 and 1,000 comments.)
Online commenters were not the only ones who had much to say about the FCC’s proposal, however. On July 1, Senator Leahy and Congressman Welch hosted a hearing during which Vermont business owners, librarians, and a former Chairman of the FCC, Michael Copps, all provided official testimony about why this proposal was a bad idea.
“I have heard from thousands of Vermonters on this issue,” said Senator Leahy, “Our little state has spoken very clearly.”
Leahy went on to say that open Internet principles are the bill of rights of the online world. “Americans, and especially Vermonters, hold these court freedoms seriously,” he said.
Congressman Welch agreed. “I see this as absolutely essential to the Vermont’s economy, as well as to rural America,” said Welch, “and I happen to think Rural America is a pretty good place.”
The two people who testified from the perspective of Vermont businesses, Lisa Groeneveld from Logic Supply and Cabot Orton from the Vermont Country Store, both explained that had there been “fast lanes” and “slow lanes” for the Internet when they were developing their online sales, their companies would not have succeeded.
For the Vermont Country Store, one-third of its 450 employees are involved in supporting customer transactions over the internet. “Internet sales have grown to represent 40% of our business,” said Orton, “We take it for granted just like mail, electricity, and highways.”
For Logic Supply, the Internet is also vital. “Our website serves as the basis for our entire revenue stream. 100% of our revenue. Every penny,” said Groeneveld. The main competitors for Logic Supply, which is based in South Burlington and currently employs around 60 people, are 20 billion dollar Taiwanese companies. “Without an open Internet,” said Groeneveld, “we might not be here today.”
In addition, a fast lane/slow lane scenario, she said, would result in search engine penalizations for websites who were not able to pay for higher speeds, meaning customers might even have trouble finding these sites. “Fast lanes offer [those who pay for them] a distinct advantage not based on quality of products, but an ability to pay,” said Groeneveld.
Orton had similar thoughts. “If we want to continue to prosper as a Vermont-based company, we need to stay where our customers are and give them what they want,” he said, and right now, customers are looking for products online. He went on to explain that a slower, marginalized website may as well not exist at all. “If we couldn’t deliver services as fast and with as high a quality as the biggest retailers, our customers would leave,” he said, “it would be demolition by neglect in the slow lane, or ruinous costs to pay up into the fast lane.”
And, the FCC’s proposal would impact more than just businesses. According to Martha Reid, the Vermont State Librarian, “libraries collect, organize and make available unique combinations of online resources for our users: local history, resources for job-seekers, consumer information, subject-area research tools, and homework help for students. And we know that users also benefit from being able to create their own information, use their own voices, and to be seen and heard on the Internet.” Without a free and open Internet, she said, “there is a danger that libraries will face higher service charges for so-called ‘premium’ online information services,” which would limit what libraries can provide to their patrons, and thereby limit those patrons’ access to open information. “Libraries would be forced to turn off vital information to those who need it most,” she said.
Former FCC commissioner Michael Copps agreed with the other three who testified. “When gatekeepers control the Internet,” he said, “everyone other than the gatekeeper suffers.”
The solution that Copps suggested was to put broadband under Title II. “Title II,” explained Copps, “is where generations of advocates have worked to build consumer protections and service protections.” He noted that “the FCC decided that broadband was not telecommunications at all, but that’s where broadband belongs, and until the FCC puts them there, clearly and strongly, we’re not going to have an open Internet.”
“An Internet controlled and managed for the benefit of the haves, discriminates against our rights not only as consumers, but most importantly as citizens,” said Copps.
Orton put it simply: “We’re not asking for special treatment, or for incentives, or for subsidies. All the small business community asks, is for Internet services to remain the way they are today.”