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Net Neutrality's Strange Bedfellows

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God help me, I think I actually agree with the Parents Television Council on an issue involving the FCC.

Regular readers of this blog know that I’ve rarely seen eye-to-eye with the “broadcast decency” advocacy group, which has (among other things) spearheaded efforts to police the content of primetime TV. The reason: I’m all for offering people more choice over the media we consume, and I am absolutely opposed to limiting everyone’s choice to suit one group’s sensibilities.

But the PTC–and several other strange-bedfellow groups–have also come out in favor of net neutrality, a policy, endangered by a court ruling yesterday, aimed at preserving the choice of media and the equal flow of information online. (More on how and why in a minute.) And while I think this is an issue with no perfect solution, I’m with them on this one. I think.

Over at Techland, Steven James Snyder has a great primer on net neutrality and why it matters. But in a nutshell: net neutrality is basically the status quo on the Internet now. Your broadband provider gives you access to any online site or service–Hulu, blogs, BitTorrent–at the same rate and the same speed.

Broadband companies (like Comcast, which brought the lawsuit) want to be able to differentiate among sites and services if they choose. They might charge more to access a popular site (like espn.com) or a high-bandwidth service (like BitTorrent). Or they might decide to allow one service faster delivery than another, for whatever reason. (More on “whatever reason” in a bit as well.) They’re private services, they argue, they don’t use public airwaves as do broadcast TV and radio, and they can do what they like with their own cable.

The FCC, and the Obama administration, think otherwise. Letting broadband companies–who have monopolies or near-monopolies in some markets–choose which sites to privilege could cut down the free flow of information. If allowed, companies could jack up prices for popular sites, on top of what they already charge. They could cut off websites that criticize them.

Or they could handicap competitors. Comcast in invested in delivering video online. It’s also buying NBC, and in turn, NBC’s stake in Hulu. Why wouldn’t they want to, say, slow down YouTube, or TV.com, or CBS.com, or any other online-video source they don’t own a piece of? This is an Internet issue, but it’s also very much a TV issue, because broadband Internet could very well become the way more of us get TV in the future (and make phone calls, etc.).

So the FCC promulgated net-neutrality regulations to keep this from happening. But a federal court yesterday ruled that the FCC does not have the legal authority from Congress to regulate broadband as it does the airwaves and telephone communications. Leaving Comcast and company free to be net-un-neutral, unless a higher court rules otherwise, or Congress acts to give the FCC that authority.

What to do? When it comes to the government and media, I’m generally a libertarian. But this is a case where there’s no actual, practical free-choice alternative, because the market itself isn’t providing much liberty. I would argue that the market should be able to let people vote with their dollars if they want net neutrality; but in the cable and broadband market, for all practical purposes, there isn’t a free market of broad choice in any particular given region. Eliminating net neutrality is essentially replacing government interference with corporate interference.

And yet we should all at least be leery of Congress extending the FCC’s authority to regulate broadband and cable providers. Keep in mind, the distinction between private cable and the public airwaves is precisely what now keeps groups like the PTC from getting the FCC to crack down on cable content the way they did broadcast after the Janet Jackson Super Bowl incident. Not to mention the Internet–it’s not as if the government hasn’t already hamhandedly, and fortunately unsuccessfully, tried to regulate “decency” online in the name of “protecting the children.”

Which is why it’s worth looking at those strange bedfellows again. Who supports net neutrality? On the one hand, free-speech or open-access groups like the ACLU and the Free Press, and the Obama Administration. On the other, the PTC and groups like the Christian Coalition, social conservatives who in the past have argued for a firmer government hand in enforcing their standards of decency. Groups, in other words, who would like to see the FCC have much more authority over the content of cable and the Internet.

(All that, by the way, puts them at odds with pro-business conservatives and libertarian conservatives like Glenn Beck, who has called net neutrality a “Marxist” plot. One of the reasons I love issues like this is that they show how inadequate our usual definitions of “liberal” and “conservative” are.)

I’m not saying that these groups backing net neutrality as a backdoor means of beefing up the decency police. But I am saying that the fact that the issue attracts groups that favor a more paternalistic FCC should make everyone think a second. Jeff Jarvis writes at Buzzmachine about the dilemma of choosing the lesser of two regulators.

In this case, I believe net neutrality is fundamentally different from, say, allowing the FCC to police nudity on Breaking Bad or swear words on South Park (or, for that matter, online). There, regulations would reduce individual choice–the choice, as the cliche goes, to watch or change the damn channel–and we should resist them.

Net neutrality is about protecting individual choice–especially against corporations that increasingly also own content sites and want to grease the wheels for their own product. (It does so, granted, by limiting the choice of corporations, but I have no problem with privileging the liberties of individuals over the liberties of corporate “citizens.”)

Where regulation for companies means offering more options for individuals to choose their own media, I can be with groups like the PTC. (Likewise, their advocacy for “a la carte” cable, allowing subscribers to purchase channels individually or in tiers rather than in one giant bundle, is an example of seeking change by expanding choice rather than restricting it.) Where I will always oppose them is in restricting choice: demanding that you and your children should not have the choice of watching primetime shows they deem inappropriate for themselves or their children.

So if Congress acts to give FCC authority on net neutrality, I hope it does it in a way that doesn’t open the door to give the FCC authority that it didn’t used to have over content. I don’t mind being with strange bedfellows on this issue, but even strange bedfellows have their limits.