On September 19th, Civic Series welcomed Russell Newman, Assistant Professor of Communications in Emerson College’s Institute for Liberal Arts & Interdisciplinary Studies, to Cloud City near Kendall Square for a conversation about Net Neutrality. Sharon introduced the ground rules (remember, there are no dumb questions!) and Jess introduced Professor Newman, who invited all attendees to share their names and why they had come that evening – creating an intimate, friendly environment for the discussion that followed.
What is Net Neutrality? At its most basic, it is the notion that an internet service provider cannot and should not choose for you. The provider gives you access to information, but you can choose what information to access and when, entirely unencumbered. There can be no “paid discrimination” – providers cannot accept money from certain sites to make them run faster, and more smoothly, while others are slow, throttled, or even entirely blocked. As of 2015, Net Neutrality is law – but under FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, we are on the precipice of losing it, which would mean that companies like Comcast could again slow down services and sites like Netflix, for the purposes of receiving payment to speed them up again.
The debate around Net Neutrality, and telecommunications more broadly, is long-lived. Legally, it has revolved around the question of whether the wire itself, and the information accessed through it, are one and the same or distinct. In the early years of the internet, when users dialed-up, they could choose from a variety of providers while using a single phone line. By the early 2000s, however, the wire and information were legally understood as one entity (under Title 1), giving internet providers complete control and allowing them to get away with illegal throttling and slowing of the transmission of information.
After significant public outcry in 2014, President Obama pressured lawmakers to reclassify broadband under Title 2, which in 2015 restored the legal framework around the distinction between the internet wire (or broadband service) and the information transmitted through it. The FCC was charged with enforcing strong Net Neutrality rules, disallowing internet providers from accepting money to alter service speeds or quality on a site-by-site basis. The 2015 rules also included more stringent privacy regulations protecting users.
Now, Professor Newman asserted, Net Neutrality is entirely in jeopardy. Chairman Pai intends to bring a return to Title 1 which will have many implications for broadband users as internet providers move into the financial sector to build their companies (think Comcast Ventures). It remains to be seen what will result if Pai achieves his objective of moving telecommunications out of the FCC’s realm altogether, and bringing it under anti-trust law.
About the Speaker: Russell Newman is an Assistant Professor of Communications in Emerson College’s Institute for Liberal Arts & Interdisciplinary Studies. His work explores the intersections of the political economy of media, neoliberalism, the epistemological foundations of media policymaking, and activism surrounding communications policy. He is currently writing a book on the network neutrality debates in the US in relation to these elements. He teaches classes on the political economy of global communication, the sales effort, civic media and new forms of surveillance.