Digital Depression author Dan Schiller is a professor in the Graduate School of Library and Information Science and the Department of Communication at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In light of the recent FCC ruling on net neutrality, Schiller weighs in on the economic re-composition that continues since the boom of information and communications technologies.
Late in February, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission reclassified broadband Internet service to place it within its Title II Telecommunications rules. This vital decision resonates with my discussion in Digital Depression: Information Technology and Economic Crisis.
The legal rationale for treating broadband as a public utility-type common carrier is straightforward: some industries perform such a widely essential function that a referee is needed, to ensure that they live up to their “duty to serve”—neither discriminating against nor gouging their users. Broadband Internet service unquestionably falls into this category. Not only has the Internet become an essential service throughout daily life, and for the conduct of commerce and politics. It also is used today by many more subscribers, proportionately, than was the telephone when the telephone was made subject to common carrier regulation many decades ago.
The substantive social rationale for common carrier regulation is even stronger. The terms on which information flows throughout society are too important to be left to a small group of gigantic, financially self-interested, corporations – at least, in a democratic society. Their corporate power over the circulation of ideas means that they must be made, and kept, publicly accountable. The FCC’s “net neutrality” decision is a step in this direction.
However, as I suggest in Digital Depression, the FCC decision is a product less of abstract legal doctrine than of political-economic power relations. Internet reformers have long endeavored to subject broadband service to common carrier regulation. They were joined in the U.S. context by big Internet businesses like Facebook, Google, Amazon and Netflix. These tech companies are looking for leverage in their terms of trade with the telecom and cable companies that channel Internet traffic flows.
Uncertainties persist about how, and perhaps even whether, the new regime will function. When the majority of Federal Communications Commissioners voted to treat both wireline and mobile broadband Internet services under the rules for telecommunications carriers, they conciliated the carriers by stating that they would forbear from exercising some of the powers that the Telecommunications rules afford them. Until the FCC publicly releases its decision, which will probably happen in the next few weeks, we won’t know exactly which responsibilities the Commission has mandated. Will the FCC be the assertive regulator that it could, and should, be? Likely challenges to the FCC’s decision – through the courts and/or through Congress – may act as a preemptive factor.
But a different question also needs to be posed. We must consider whether substantial regulation also needs to be imposed on the giant Internet companies themselves. Irrefutably they, in addition to the broadband Internet services, wield concentrated corporate power over Internet system development. And there is no doubt that both the proprietary algorithms that structure their services and the tight interlocks they have forged with intelligence agencies require more meaningful public oversight – in the interest both of privacy protection and democratic self-government. It’s imperative that the likes of Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon and Microsoft be made accountable to the broader populace. How to accomplish this constitutes an absolutely vital and still almost entirely unmet policy challenge – though it may be further along in the European Union than in the United States.