Open access to the Internet presents a sense of online freedom for both users and content providers, but a recent legal ruling could mean the end of that. Since 2011, the FCC has adopted a set of Open Internet regulations to ensure fair access to all web content. However, in January 2014, the US Court of Appeals for the DC circuit ruled against the regulations set forth by the FCC, creating a potential future where net neutrality will cease to exist (Roberts, 2014). Aside from the threat against net neutrality, one takeaway from this case is that the parameters for net neutrality need to be clearly and carefully expressed in order to ensure that the Internet remains a public democratic space. Though the ramifications of the 2014 ruling will not be immediate, an Internet without net neutrality means a damaging influence on how users and content providers, including publishers, engage with the online world.
A definition of net neutrality: the concept that the dissemination of online content should be treated the same, regardless of how it is delivered. Three broad principles apply to this concept: broadband service providers must be open and transparent to their customers about how their networks operate; they must not discriminate against web traffic; and they must not block lawful content on their networks (Reardon, 2014).
Because the US Supreme Court previously determined that broadband services should not be classified as a telecommunications service in a 2005 court case, the restrictions of the “common carrier” cannot be applied to broadband services (Reardon, 2005). A “common carrier” is a company, such as a telephone network, that is obligated to provide telecommunications service to the general public. The FCC labeled broadband services as an information service in the 2014 court case. Unlike “common carriage,” information services are not required to permit public access on their networks. Due to the FCC’s attempt to treat broadband providers as common carriers, the court of appeals struck down its case for net neutrality.
However, the FCC has not been prevented from regulating the Internet altogether. The court of appeals has allowed the government agency to revise its case by redefining broadband providers in a context that enables open public service (Greeley, 2014). In doing so, the FCC can be granted the authority to enact net neutrality. The extent of that potential authority has drawn concerns, however, as it could be seen as an excess of power being transferred from one dictating force (broadband providers) to another (the FCC) (Reardon, 2014). To successfully reclaim net neutrality, the FCC must take care to redefine broadband providers, particularly on what legal grounds they should be expected to acknowledge net neutrality, and what sort of fair measures the FCC will use to maintain open web traffic.
Another opposing stance against net neutrality is the claim that a lack of Internet regulation encourages improvement and innovation such as better video streaming and the freedom for companies to experiment with new methods of content delivery (Reardon, 2014). This argument relies on businesses that have the funds to complete such goals, ignoring new and independent companies. It is the former that are favoured by an unregulated Internet, while the latter experience obstacles that prevent them from developing into sustainable firms.
One likely repercussion from the 2014 ruling will be that broadband providers like Verizon and Time Warner will charge expensive fees to companies in exchange for priority access. Only the larger, wealthier corporations can afford those costs. Newcomers will be unable to pay those fees for long, which will also serve as disincentives for investors to sponsor startups. As a result, the stream of new businesses will slow down. The chances that an aspiring entrepreneur could establish a company capable of societal and technological change on the level of Google or Facebook would be reduced due to the new barriers to entry, which were not present when those world-changing corporations made their rise to power.
Specifically for publishers, an unregulated Internet could mean that the sites of larger publishing firms will have better loading times over those of the smaller houses. If broadband providers choose to offer multi-tiered services, in which companies receive a faster loading time based on the higher fees they are willing (or able) to pay, smaller companies will be unable to compete. Such conditions are not feasible in a culture of instant gratification; users will turn to sites that will better accommodate their wants and needs. This scenario extends to online bookstores and book reviews sites like Goodreads. What little revenue is generated from digital sales will become nil for independent sellers, and consumers will experience difficulty in discovering new literature (Kurtz, 2014). Smaller businesses and sites will be unable to develop any further, leading them to either toil in obscurity or shut down. With fewer opportunities for new authors to gain exposure for their work, the creative end of publishing will deteriorate.
Libraries would also be forced to deal with a hindrance to online access, such as service charges for online premium content (Stripling, 2014). Limited budgets would constrain them from paying those costs. Patrons who rely on libraries as their lone source of information and education would be prevented from accessing a collection of previously available content such as academic articles and digitized historical materials as well as receiving local and municipal services.
Another possible consequence of the 2014 ruling is linked to the overreaching influence of major corporations that play a substantial role in publishing. If Amazon fails to reach an agreement with a broadband provider such as Verizon or Time Warner, the corporate giant could experience impeded traffic to its site or in an extreme case, blocked content for certain broadband users. Since Amazon is one of the main online distributors for books, many publishers will lose out on potential revenue and exposure for their titles. A similar case could happen for Apple: failed negotiations between the conglomerate and broadband service providers could result in restricted access to publishers’ digital titles through iTunes. On a grander scale, Google would also be affected. If negotiations did not result in a satisfying agreement, Google would not be exempt from having its content be restricted. For the most widely used search engine to be confined would be a heavy blow to publishers and independent booksellers. (In 2010, Google announced its public policy which supported net neutrality.) The more probable situation, however, is that Amazon, Apple, and other corporations will secure deals that give them preferential online treatment over minor businesses in the market.
Publishers already have little control over how their content is received. In the past, they made agreements with Amazon to use proprietary DRM (O’Leary, 2014), and their content apps are sold primarily through the Google Play store and iTunes (Cuban, 2014). With the removal of net neutrality, publishers will become more vulnerable to the decisions made by Amazon, Google, and Apple, who currently influence how published content is packaged and sold to consumers.
Ultimately, the principle of net neutrality establishes the Internet as an open platform for users to receive unrestrained access to content without concern over how web traffic is managed. For not only publishers but booksellers and other supporting online sources, an open Internet provides an equal economic market for publishing to grow and flourish. Without precisely defined parameters for net neutrality, the publishing business will struggle, and its fate will be determined by corporations such as Verizon, Time Warner, Amazon, and others. Power held in such few hands means severe repercussions for the future of publishing. Online costs will increase, fewer new voices will express fresh ideas, and innovative technology will decline in an already stagnating industry.
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O’Leary, B. (2014, January 14). Things That Matter. Magellan Media. Retrieved from http://www.magellanmediapartners.com/index.php/mmcp/article/things_that_matter/
Roberts, J.J. (2014, January 14). Court strikes down FCC’s net neutrality rules, agency may appeal. Gigaom. Retrieved from http://gigaom.com/2014/01/14/breaking-court-strikes-down-fccs-net-neutrality-rules/
Reardon, M. (2014, January 15). Why you should care about Net neutrality (FAQ). CNET. Retrieved from http://news.cnet.com/8301-1035_3-57617242-94/why-you-should-care-about-net-neutrality-faq/
Stripling, B. (2014, January 16). Why Net Neutrality’s Demise Hurts the Poor Most. Wired. Retrieved from http://www.wired.com/opinion/2014/01/killing-net-neutrality-means-killing-economic-equality-access/
Kurtz, D. (2014, January 16). A loss of net neutrality is a loss for literature. Melville House. Retrieved from http://www.mhpbooks.com/a-loss-of-net-neutrality-is-a-loss-for-literature/
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Cuban, M. (2014, January 20). App Neutrality Should Be Part of the Net Neutrality Discussion. Huffington Post. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/mark-cuban/app-neutrality-net-neutrality_b_4632091.html
Reardon, M. (2014, January 23). Worried about Net neutrality? Maybe it’s the FCC that should really concern you. CNET. Retrieved from http://news.cnet.com/8301-13578_3-57617576-38/worried-about-net-neutrality-maybe-its-the-fcc-that-should-really-concern-you/